Liberal Intolerance ?

via Dr.Vijaya Rajiva published on October 13, 2011

The recent shocking attack on Prashant Bhushan for expressing his views on Kashmir is indeed to be condemned because of the built in violence of the attack. This is not so much about Bhushan’s absolute right of freedom of expression (no such absolute right exists even by the standards of the philosophers of freedom of expression) as about the moral repugnance we all feel when a defenceless person is physically attacked. The men who barged in were not only young but more numerous and Bhushan is an older man and he was alone. Punching and kicking him was unpardonable, and the nation is relieved that he does not seem to have sustained serious injuries. We hope that he continues to engage in whatever serious struggle he is conducting in the Team Anna movement against corruption.

So what was it that provoked the attackers ? Bhushan had said publicly that a referendum should be held in Kashmir. The attackers who called themselves the followers of  Bhagat
Singh were inflamed at this unpatriotic sentiment (as they saw it). Indeed Bhushan’s statement can be construed as sedition as were some of Arundhati Roy’s statements on the subject.

The interesting debate on CNN IBN (hosted by Sagarika Ghosh)on whether freedom of speech is an absolute right  had prominent  participants : Ashish Nandy well known sociologist, Anjoli Sen, the artist, Ketkar, the journalist and danseuse and social activist Mrinalini Sarabhai. The two men were the most incensed by the events of the day, while the women gave a more nuanced set of opinions. Anjoli Sen who defended MF Husain’s right of artistic freedom to portray Hindu deities in shockingly nude and obscene paintings, disagreed with Arundahti Roy’s actions. She did not disagree with Roy’s right to express herself freely in her journalistic writings, but she would draw the line at Roy’s actions which instigated violence, as in her march with the Kashmir terrorists.

Mallika Sarabhai regretted the general lack of freedom of expression not only in Gujarat but all over India and she cited the recent event centred around the reading of the 100 Ramayanas in New Delhi. Interestingly, her criticism of the Sangh Parivar was less strident than her usual pronouncements on the subject.

The two male participants were livid with anger. Ashish Nandy was bluntly condemnatory of the attack . So incensed was he that he went so far as to say that freedom of expression is an absolute right guaranteed by the Indian Constitution(not true!) Now this is not quite accurate as he an eminent sociologist, of all people. should know. John Stuart Mill that advocate of individual freedoms in his  work On Liberty had clearly stated that the freedom of expression is not an ABSOLUTE right. For instance one’s freedom of expression cannot be endorsed if one gets up in the middle of a crowded theatre and shouts ‘Fire!’ for no good reason, except to prove his/her freedom of expression. So also one’s freedom of movement ends when one’s fist encounters another man’s jaw and so on. Clearly the patron saint of libertarianism did set some limits.

The point here is that while the attackers of Bhushan had no right to physically attack the lawyer, neither did he have an ABSOLUTE right to express his views on Kashmir at a difficult and trying moment for the nation. Yes, he has the right to express his views, but is that an ABSOLUTE right ? Perhaps the anchor’s repeated identification of absolute freedoms and liberalism was a misguided position to take. IT MAKES LIBERALISM SEEM INTOLERANT, worse, meaningless.

Professor Nandy’s further comment that the thugs were from narrow middle class families  would indicate that liberalism can sometimes be based on class snobbery. Upper class civil society would NEVER do such things now, would they ? In reply to Nandy’s statement one can point out the indifference of the self same upper class civil society that kept silent on the violence perpetrated by members of their class, as for instance in the horrific attack on the middle aged woman Rajbala at the Ramlila grounds on June 4 , 2011, an attack which left her with broken spine and paralysed limbs, in agony, until she passed away three months later. While Swami Ramdev does have upper class devotees, the crowd that gathered at the Ramlila grounds that day were mainly from the less privileged sections of Hindu society.

It would therefore seem that the rise of physical violence by fringe groups is linked to the general malaise of liberal society, both in its indifference to the social and economic well being of less privileged members of society and as well increasingly to the indifference of the Beautiful People towards the slow, insidious (and sometimes quick) attack on the majority population’s beliefs and religious practices.

(The writer is a Political Philosopher who taught at a Canadian university).

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