Posted on 20-11-2012
Filed Under (Current Affairs) by Rashtrakut

“Vae, puto deus fio” (Dear me, I must be turning into a god.)

– The emperor Vespasian on his deathbed.

One wonders whether Bal Thackeray (obituary here) uttered some similar sentiments.  Evidently the Maharashtra police seem to think that a new deity has been added to the Hindu pantheon.  In the latest assault of free speech in India, a mild Facebook rant and a Facebook like ended with the arrest of two students.  The “offensive” post questioned why the whole city of Mumbai was forced to shut down on the death of a private citizen when national heroes were ignored.  The resulting criminal charge was “hurting religious sentiments” of Thackeray’s followers who followed up the police complaint by ransacking an orthopedic clinic run by the original poster’s uncle – which does bring up the question why Shiv Sena goons keep trashing hospitals…but i digress.  The terrified young women have withdrawn the post and apologized for the temerity of engaging in free speech.

Indian civil society and social media is now up in arms and the state government has promised strict punishment “if the policemen are found guilty” – i.e. nothing will happen.  The Shiv Sena thugs are typically unrepentant.   India has lately been showing a depressing tendency to crack down in free speech on social media.  Many colonial era laws enacted to suppress dissent have been retained by India after independence to preserve communal harmony.  The result is a thin skinned populace that runs to the police every time anything remotely offensive gets uttered.

This is creates a mockery of India’s guarantee of free speech. As previously noted on this blog, freedom of speech implies the freedom to offend – otherwise it would not be a freedom that needed codifying.  In India, thin skinned crybabies are using loosely drafted laws to suppress any dissent.  This is rapidly becoming a gut-check moment for Indian democracy.  Will it retain the liberal free speech traditions embodied in its constitution and encouraged by its first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru?  Or will it continue down the road traveled by his grandson Rajiv Gandhi – whose government was the first to ban Rushdie’s Satanic Verses?

So far India’s vibrant civil society has loudly challenged such free speech violations.  Yet India’s politicians and their (sometimes uniformed) thugs continue to persist in such conduct.  Without stringent electoral and legal consequences for such acts, Indian free speech will remain under siege.

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