Tuesday, 15 April 2014

The Mirage of Free Speech

The true test of a society's commitment to freedom of expression lies in its defence of marginalised forms of speech. Yet, there is a certain amount of fear within me as I choose to highlight that a Delhi based publishing house "Navayana" has withdrawn the English translation of Sahitya Akademi recipient and Tamil writer Joe D'Cruz first novel originally published in Tamil called "Aazhi Soozh Ulagu", which is based on the lives of catamaran fishermen. The reason for withdrawal cited by the publisher is that the said writer declared his support for Narendra Modi, the prime ministerial aspirant of the Bharatiya Janata Party.

The book's translator V. Geetha, in her statement said, "I was terribly distressed when I read Joe D'Cruz's statement of support for Modi. He is entitled to his political opinion but I don't want to be associated with anyone or anything linked to Modi. We can't forget Gujarat 2002--no one must be allowed to either. I still stand by his novel, which I think is a fantastic saga of fisher life and I am sorry Joe has decided to trade his considerable gifts as a novelist for politics that is fascist and dangerous. I have, therefore, decided to withdraw my translation."

It is distressing to note that constitutionally guaranteed freedoms are now being contested by publishing houses on the basis of differing political perspectives. The intellectual discourse of the country since Independence has largely been populated by left-leaning academics, who hold a monopoly over academic institutions and policy-making institutions, which make India stuck in a self-negating world view. While there is absolutely no doubt that, "secular" intellectuals would jump at an opportunity to condemn an instance like the pulping of Wendy Doniger's book on Hinduism, there is a marked silence on the freedom of speech and expression of Joe D'Cruz's book or when Jitendra Bhargava's book titled "The Descent of Air India," which chronicles the decline of the national airline. The publishers, in the latter's case, issued an unconditional apology to the former civil aviation minister and promptly withdrew copies of the book. However, there was no outrage about it. The matter was hushed up in the media too.

This controversy once again brings alive to the debate whether if political inclinations and literary beliefs can be separated? Can a ideology influence a writer? It is certainly not unreasonable that extreme reactions to writers and their creative expressions must be condemned. However, politics is an immensely personal choice and must remain so. How does a publishing house get affected with a person's political belief? A good novel can be political but politics cannot be simply derived from an author's stated political positions. If we were to begin to impose censorship in the lives of novels and poems written by authors who have said and done things which we disapprove, we would be left with a very feeble reading list. 

The capacity of ideas spreads across to ennoble and appall, uplift and debunk, inspire and outrage should not threaten us but make us respect even more the value of protecting the marketplace of ideas. Commitment to freedom, after all, is just self interest when an individual is promoting it for their own ends. It only becomes a principle when we fight for it tooth and nail to protect someone else. Until we don't get finicky about a person's political belief, it is only then can we even be worthy of the freedom of free speech and expression that we truly seek.

No comments: