Friday 3 February 2012

The Limits of Freedom of Speech and the Rushdie Episode

The Limits of Freedom of Speech and the Rushdie Episode
By Justice Markandey Katju,
Chairman, Press Council of India,
(Former Judge, Supreme Court of India)

            The recent Rushdie episode has raised some vital points regarding freedom of speech and expression, which need to be seriously addressed. I am submitting five points for consideration on the topic.

1.         No freedom can be absolute: In a democracy freedom of speech is a valuable individual right. For progress there must be freedom to speak, freedom to write, freedom to criticize, and freedom to dissent. Unless there is freedom ideas cannot grow, and in the transition period India and other underdeveloped countries are going through modern ideas are extremely important.
 But since man is a social being, he cannot be permitted to exercise this freedom in a manner which may damage society (see Rousseau: The Social Contract). It is for this reason that Article 19 (1) (a) of the Indian Constitution, which grants freedom of speech and expression (which has been interpreted by our Supreme Court to include freedom of the press) to all citizens, has been made subject to Article 19 (2) which says that the right granted by Article 19 (a) (a) is subject to reasonable restrictions in the interest of the security of the State, public order, decency, morality etc.
            The individual’s freedom of speech has therefore to be harmonized with the public interest. In other words, a balance has to be struck between the two. Where to strike the balance is therefore a question of crucial importance. This then takes us to my second point.

2.         Freedom is relativeIn considering where to strike a balance one cannot consider the matter in the abstract but in the specific historical context.
            For example, portraying Jesus Christ as a gay person may be acceptable in the West today, but to depict religious figures of Hinduism or Islam as gay would be totally unacceptable in India and may probably lead to religious riots and violence. This is because people in India are much more religious than in the West.
            Therefore when we consider the Salman Rushdie issue we must keep this point in mind. In ‘Satanic Verses’ Rushdie has certainly attacked, even though by insinuation, Islam and the Prophet. Such sensationalism may have earned Rushdie millions of dollars, but it has deeply hurt Muslim sensitivities.
            Some people describe Rushdie as a great writer because he has won the Booker Prize. In this connection, I wish to say that Literature Prizes are often a mystery. To give an example, out of the approximately 100 Nobel Prizes given for Literature till today, nobody even remembers the names of 80 or more winners, whereas many great writers were not given the prize. So winning the Booker Prize to my mind proves little. ‘Midnight’s Children’, for which Rushdie got the Booker Prize, is almost unreadable. It is difficult to understand what Rushdie is driving at. So the new criterion for good literature is that it should be unreadable!
3.         The Jaipur Literature Festival:  This was dominated by the Rushdie issue. There was hardly any good discussion on other writers of India or foreign countries in the 5 day Festival. Rushdie was made into a hero.
            One had expected a serious discussion on Indian writers like Kabir, Premchand, Sharat Chandra, Manto, Kazi Nazrul Islam, Ghalib, Faiz, etc. or foreign writers like Dickens, Bernard Shaw, Upton Sinclair, Walt Whitman, Victor Hugo, Flaubert, Balzac, Goethe, Schiller, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Gorki etc. But instead the total focus was on Rushdie. Discussion on good writers was marginalized.
            A big hue and cry was raised that freedom of speech was imperiled by banning Rushdie.
            The Indian Prime Minister recently declared that it is a shame that 42% of our children are malnourished. The real figures in India are higher, perhaps 47%, which is 12% higher than the poorest sub-Saharan countries like Ethiopia or Somalia. 47 farmers have been committing suicide in India everyday on an average for the last 15 years --  250,000 farmers’ suicides, making it a world record of suicides in history. Unemployment in India is massive, there is poverty everywhere, even in the capital city. There are massive problems of price rise, healthcare, education, housing, etc. We stand 66th among the 88 hungry nations of the world. On the other hand, there are 49 dollar billionaires, in India, and the gulf between rich and poor has greatly increased.
            Should literature address these problems, or should we only care for Mr. Rushdie’s freedom?  To my mind freedom for the Indian masses is freedom from hunger, ignorance, unemployment, disease and all kinds of deprivation, not freedom to read Mr. Rushdie’s substandard books.
            Had Rushdie’s work been beneficial to the Indian people one could have supported it even if it temporarily created some social disorder. Great works sometimes create disorder e.g. the works of Voltaire, Rousseau, Thomas Paine, the French Encyclopaedists, etc. But how does ‘Midnight’s Children’ or ‘Satanic Verses’ help the Indian people in their struggle for a better life? What is their social relevance?
            As I pointed out in a previous article, many Indians suffer from an inferiority complex that whatever is written by someone living in London or New York must be great literature, whereas whatever is written by a writer living in India (particularly in a vernacular language) must be inferior.
            I was recently reading (or rather re-reading) John Steinbeck’s ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ which is about the migration of farmers of Oklahama in U.S.A. who had lost their livelihood due to the Great Depression and fled to California searching for jobs which were not there. This is a really great novel, and reminds one of the recent migrations of hundreds of thousands of farmers in India who lost their livelihood and fled to cities looking for jobs which were not there. It is such kind of literature which India requires highlighting great social problems, not works of Rushdie which have no social relevance.
4.         There is tremendous diversity in IndiaIndia is broadly a country of immigrants, like North America. 92 to 93 of its present population consists of descendants of people who came from abroad, mainly from the North West. For this reason there is tremendous diversity in India – so many religions castes, languages, ethnic groups, etc. Therefore the only policy which can work in India and keep it together is secularism and giving equal respect to all communities – the policy laid down in our Constitution.
            For this reason it is very important for preserving India’s integrity to respect all religions, even if one does not subscribe to them.
            Religion is a matter of faith, not logic. Hindu’s regard Lord Rama and Lord Krishna as Gods. Muslims respect Prophet Mohammed. Since the overwhelming number of Indians are deeply religious, unlike in the West where the hold of religion has considerably weakened, care must be taken in India not to insult any religious figure directly or indirectly.
            Rushdie has deeply hurt Muslim feelings by ‘Satanic Verses’. Why then was the focus on him at Jaipur? Was there a subtle, deliberate design to divide Hindus and Muslims? One wonders.

5.         India is presently passing through a transitional period in its history, from feudalism to a modern industrial society. This is a very painful and agonizing period in history, as a study of European history from the 17th to 19th  centuries discloses --- full of turbulence and turmoil. With great difficulty, and after tremendous sacrifices India has partially emerged from the dark, feudal age. Should it be hurled back into that age by permitting freedom to insult religious sensitivities, which only makes people more obscurantists, and may lead to public disorder? To my mind freedom of speech should be used in India to spread rational and scientific ideas while avoiding insult to any religion. This will help in getting over the transitional period faster and with less pain.       


  1. What Justice Katju misses is the impact of neoliberalism on almost every aspect of life. Man suffers from split personality. There is no reconciliation among his personality as consumer, investor, worker and citizen. Secondly, a person who has some position whether as a police constable or as a minister or official, his aim is to garner as much wealth as possible by hook or by crook. If he has wealth, his main aim is to acquire some position by hook or by crook. Look around and you will find this reflected in the increased incidence of corruption and the attempts by criminals to enter legislature and so on. One expects a person like Katju sahib to delve deep and enlighten us.

  2. aww mr.katju deleting any opinion against you,now i get why you don't want freedom of speech. maybe it time for younger and more wise people to head esteemed institutions that are supposed to hold a mirror to the society.

    1. I take from your comment, that you will very liberally accept if someone abuses your father or eve-teases your daughter? Freedom of speech is a fundamental right of the goons on the roads as well right? Why does a girl go and complain about lewd comments then?

      A country as huge and diverse as ours has to have "reasonable restrictions" or there will be millions (possibly like you) who would seek out every opportunity to abuse it.

  3. I think points you bring up are vital for considering as a country, and more people should share views on these things, so that as a country we can arrive at a more considered understanding.

    My own views differ from yours, and I have blogged them at hoping that we can start a dialogue on this subject and possibly more people can bring up what they see too. Would appreciate your views.

  4. 1. To say that freedom is relative implies that human behavior is relative. You're implying that Indians are inferior to westerners which I refuse to accept. We can (and should) be able to stomach just as much freedom as they do.

    You're also wrong about western people not being religious. The entire "Bible Belt" of the US is filled with deeply religious people. The president of the US has always been Christian unlike India where we've had PMs of all faiths.

    If anything, the US is MORE religious than India. The difference lies in the fact that people know they are supposed to ignore what they don't like or protest in a peaceful manner. They KNOW that if they go beyond that they will get arrested. The INDIAN state however, takes it as a given that people will behave like children and riot.

    Treat people like children, and they will BE children. The US treats its citizens like adults, and so the ARE adults. India treats its citizens as if they're babies who can't bear anything offensive to them.

    2. The quality of Rushdie's writing is irrelevant. It's the principal of the matter.

    3. India will be hurled back into the dark ages ONLY if thugs and goondas are allowed to dictate terms to others. The Jaipur literary fest has demonstrated that we might as well not HAVE a government. Rowdies and criminals threatened violence. THAT is what the dark ages looks like. When there is no rule of law. When there is no government.

    1. common man.. he said indians have inferiority complex..not " indians are inferior to westeners!!"

  5. @Katju and @Bhagwad Park A new dimension to Rushdie's controversy can be seen here

  6. You've mentioned here that western people are not religious. This is a common misconception in India. Had you been following the Republican Presidential debate in the US, you won't have said that. Every candidate was going out of his/her way to prove their unconditional faith in God. It is practically impossible for a person to get elected after denying existence of God. Contrast this with Karunanidhi and Veerappa Moily who are atheists, but never had problem getting elected.

    If we are supposed to respect all religions, then how do we criticise religious practices that we don't agree with. You have extensive experience with cases of honour killing. Speaking up in favour of a couple's right to choose their spouse hurts the religious feelings of many in India. Should we then not speak up against those. Same issue with caste system. How are we to speak up against discrimination against homosexuals if doing so hurts religious sentiments, which it does. When Galileo proposed that Earth was round, he faced persecution because it hurt the religious feelings of many. Are you suggesting that he should have kept quiet?

    You are definitely lot superior in your understanding of the Indian constitution and I can never come close. While the right to practice ones religion is protected in the Indian Constition (as it should be). Does the constitution not protect the rights of individuals if other people's religious beliefs infringe on those rights? If a Hindu worships a cow, should a Muslim not be allowed to eat beef either?

    If Rushdie finds some problems in the practice of Islam, why should he not be allowed to speak up against those practices?

  7. Sir you are missing the essential point..was jaipur festival abt satanic versus? was they going to discuss about it? Indian State is basically a weak state and easily crumbles if somebody has enough numbers.That is the reason why state tried to evade its responsibility by citing law and order problem..what is d need of state if it can not protect law and order..banning satanic versus is why you are banning the person to visit d country..its v.shameful and it saddens me to no end that instead of voicing your opposition,you are some how endorsing banishment of Rushdie..

  8. Here i would like to reproduce the blog i have written, of course with His Lordship's permission-----"I do not wish to get into the controversy whether banning him was correct or not.” These are the words of His Lordship Justice Katju,who is also the Chairman of Press Council Of India,when His Lordship was asked to give opinion on whether Salman Rushdie be banned or not.I was stunned by these words.I was stunned because these words come from the mouth of His Lordship who is supposed as well as expected to throw his weight behind "The Right to Express one's thoughts".The most important thing,if the Democracy is to stay and flourish,is that even if we dont agree with someone's views we must not gag him,rather it is our duty to protect him from any probable attack.His Lordship must be aware of what one great political thinker once said that “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it." This is the soul of Democracy. I take this opportunity to cite the quotes of His Lordship J.Katju. His Lordship while noting that democracy and science should go hand in hand, he said "scientific growth requires certain supportive values like freedom to think, to criticise and to dissent, tolerance, plurality, and free flow of information.These precisely are the values of a democratic society." Are You listening My Lord."

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  10. Great points Mr Katju. We need not to waste time on some writer who is not Indian and who has hurt the sentiments of a religious group through his book. JLF should have been more about Indian writers.

    Rushdie is just a TV media and social media sensationalism and nothing else. No one else is bothered.

    India definitely needs Freedom of Speech with responsibility.

  11. I have never came across an article of more brilliance than this on the subject. Justice Katju, you really strike the right cord. Though its an old post and the incident is also a history, yet your article will be a light to many of the citizens and netizens across the globe. Writing sensational is one thing and writing good is another. And, you truely owe a salute for this.