Ramjas and Freedom of Expression

  • Umar Khalid should have been listened to at Ramjas College. He has a right to freedom of expression. The seminar should not have been canceled.
  • Shazia Ilmi should not have been dropped from the speaker’s list at Jamia.
  • Lipstick Under My Burkha should not have been banned by the Censor Board. In fact, there should be no Censor Board. If Hollywood can be responsible enough to self-censor, why not Indian cinema?
  • Sanjay Leela Bhansali should not have been assaulted in Jaipur.
  • Tarek Fatah should not have been heckled and attacked at Rekhta, and legal action should be taken against the Muslim organization that announced a 1 million Rupee award for his head.
  • Going a few years back, Salman Rushdie should not have been stopped from speaking at Jaipur Literary Festival. In fact his book should be unbanned and he should be free to visit and speak anywhere in India.
  • Taslima Nasreen should have no fears about returning to Kolkata, the city of joy.

Now this is a minuscule list of the examples of quelling of freedom of expression in India in recent times. I have picked diverse examples intentionally from across the political spectrum to let the readers assess if they will stand up against each of these cases of restriction of freedom of speech. So, here is the thing: if you do not stand against each case of suppression of freedom of speech, then you have no right to complain that freedom of speech is being restricted in the country. You can be standing up for your Right wing values, or for your Left wing values, but you cannot be standing up for freedom of speech, unless you respect everyone’s right to free speech.
What actually happened in Ramjas College late last week, and who is at fault, is really hard to judge if you were not actually at the scene, particularly with multiple sides making contradictory claims about the sequence of events. However, I would like to go over three videos and express my opinion. Later in this article, I would like to propose how India needs to take a page out of the West’s playbook regarding freedom of speech, particularly the 1st Amendment to the US Constitution.
Video 1: Newslaundry report from Ramjas

This video very effectively documents multiple student statements and testimonies accusing ABVP “goons” of inflicting violence upon the students. It is hard to tell if the video is giving all students a voice, but it goes without saying that the violence perpetrated is regrettable and unacceptable, and so is the suppression of speech and cancellation of the seminar.
However, there is just one more thing I have to say about this video:
Starting at 3:03 minutes Sanjay Kumar, reportedly a DU faculty member, questions why “they” have a problem with the word “Azadi”. I think I have an answer for Sanjay Kumar. I believe this word has been chosen by the Left deliberately to provoke and troll the so called “nationalists”. The screams of azadi remind one of the secessionist slogans raised in Kashmir. “Hum kya chahite, Azaadi” is a typically Kashmiri slogan and makes sense only when raised in a Kashmiri accent — हम क्या चाहिते, आज़ादी. This blogger is a migrant from Kashmir and cannot disassociate the word from the terror the screams for azadi in Kashmir’s streets meant for minority community in the valley. You can justify all you want that you are asking for independence from oppression, poverty, blah-blah, but words acquire meanings, and this word is inalienably linked to Kashmir’s clarion call for separation from India, primarily based on religious differences. Now you can be fully in favor of Kashmir’s azadi from India and I am fine with that, but if that is not what your intention is, then don’t yell “azadi azadi” without a context. A word like “swatantrata” may be a mouthful and I wouldn’t want to burden the poor English medium educated slogan shouters with such a heavy word, but even the word “freedom” may be enough to meet your needs. Point is, the dictionary gives you several other ways of pronouncing your hatred of oppression and poverty — unless your intention is to troll and provoke.
Or, on the positive side, if the word is extensively used in Delhi and rest of the country, it may acquire a new meaning and no longer be so closely linked to Kashmir’s secessionist demand.
Video 2: Newslaundry’s Facebook Live Interview with ABVP Leaders:

This interview of DUSU vice president Priyanka Chhawri and former DUSU president Satender Awana is a very good example of what not to do from a news organization’s point of view. The interviewer is ill prepared. He tries to be critical of ABVP but ends up getting bullied into accepting their point of view on several issues. The student leaders try un-convincingly to assert that the trouble makers were all on AISA side, but their other arguments about the Left’s treatment of right wingers in Kerala, some media outlets’ one-sided anti-ABVP coverage, AISA leader’s untrue tweets about section 144, were driven home well, even though Awana’s aggressive attitude is off-putting. The participating trio in this video seems to be going over some videos of the incidents but the viewers are given no clue about what the three were watching and what they are trying to prove. At one point, Awana turns the laptop screen towards the camera, but there is no way the viewers can see anything. Very unprofessional presentation.
Overall, this was a one sided video. I am wondering how it would have looked if multiple sides were brought in to debate. I’m sure there would have been fireworks! For all the complaints being made about suppression of speech, it seems not letting others speak is not a Left or Right thing, but an Indian thing. This is evident from any “debate” you see on television, or even if you are trying to have a debate with anybody in person. Every participant is bent upon making the dialogue into a monologue.
Several times in this video Satender Awana criticizes JNU’s Shehla Rashid for bringing a stone to the NDTV studio as if that was proof that she was attacked with it. Shehla may have actually been attacked with that stone, but just bringing it to the studio was not proof of her being attacked with it. Also watch this video from NDTV that shows how Miss Rashid shuts and shouts down RSS’s Rakesh Sinha, and how the anchor Nidhi Razdan watches helplessly. You will get a chuckle out of this.
What is important is that the Left needs to get off its high moral horse. Whenever and wherever they can, they suppress dissent equally vehemently, and equally violently. Be it Kerala, be it West Bengal, be it JNU, or be it Jamia, or be it Cuba, China or erstwhile Eastern Bloc. I’m tired of Right wing social media posts as much as I am tired of Leftists’ grandstanding that pretty much tells you, “If you are not with us; if you are not calling Modi a fascist and a murderer, you are a part of the problem.” It is this haughty attitude of the Left that drives people into the laps of Modis and Trumps. Communism is not the greatest thing since sliced bread and if it was, it would have had more representation in the country’s legislative bodies. “But the voters are stupid bigots!”, you say. Well, say that at your own peril.
Video 3: Ravish Kumar – Ramjas College in NDTV

This video is a very important one for several reasons. It brings together several planned participants of the canceled Ramjas seminar and presents to the viewers what they “would have said” at the seminar. Now there is no way of knowing if the participants (read: Umar Khalid) would have stuck to this script, but this video proves two things. One, there was apparently nothing explosive or anti-national that was planned. Two, suppression of speech does not help the suppressors of speech. On the contrary, the suppressed usually gets a wider and more interested audience after that, whether it is a canceled seminar or a banned film. Take Kanhaiya Kumar. I have seen several of his speech videos and I don’t find anything inspiring or of substance in his speeches; it is mostly rhetoric, or jumlas (to use the Left’s terminology). However, owing to what happened in JNU last year, he is now a household name in India, for better or for worse. If he had not been to Tihar, nobody would have heard his name outside JNU. Umar Khalid seems to talk much more sense in comparison, although I am not convinced from his speech that he did not raise anti-India slogans.

Let us talk about the limits freedom of speech can go to in the West, particularly in my adopted country the United States. So, there is this thing called the First Amendment. It reads as follows:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Most people, when they talk about “my first amendment rights” talk about their freedom of speech. Here are some examples of exercise of freedom of speech that would be hard to exercise in India, and are guaranteed in the US:

1. People can burn the US flag, or criticize or burn a religious book, without being prosecuted.
2. Country’s leaders can be mocked and criticized on the mainstream media much more vehemently.
3. I think the most egregious example of protection of freedom of speech is the fact that a hated organization like Westboro Baptist Church can protest in front of soldier’s funerals and jewish community centers and profess their hatred.
In spite of the above, there are cases of controversial speakers being prevented from speaking at Universities by student groups. However, in general, the point I am trying to make is that free speech is important and no amount of slogan shouting and speech giving can weaken a nation, unless you ban that speech and widen its reach. No amount of criticism of religion, religious books, or religious figures should be able to weaken a religion. Let us counter speech with speech, not with violence. Remember, people have rights, ideas do not.

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Dirty Old Man of Indian Journalism

Khushwant SinghEven though I grew up reading Khushwant Singh’s columns in the 70s and 80s, for recent years I had not read much from or about him. For a short period I wondered if he was even alive — until my last trip to India in August when I laid my hands on what may have been one of his last books – “The Company of Women”. This book was a virtual “mastram” book, and even though he kept the reader hooked with his story telling, there were no pretensions of literary class. It looked like he had either lost his mojo in his 90s or had used a ghost writer. Khushwant Singh died today at the age of 99. He will be missed, for being part of my very early English reading, if for nothing else.
Khushwant Singh was famous for writing about his love of scotch, women and gossip. However, although he wrote a lot about these things, he was never in the news for excess of these things in his personal life. If he drank a lot of scotch, he was never in the news for it. His personal life seemed more like that of a regular family man than that of a casanova that he could have been.
The Illustrated Weekly edited by Khushwant Singh in the 70s was my first real exposure to English reading. Then in 80s his column “With Malice Towards One and All” in The Hindustan Times was my regular read. His column always ended with a joke, usually sent in by a reader. I used to send him (recycled) jokes sometimes, and he published mine once. Another time he sent me a handwritten postcard with the message “Mr. Kaul, I published a similar joke already”.
I believe the first time I heard the word “gay” being used for homosexuals was through his column. He wrote something about the Indian word for gay could be “Khush”, even though it pointed to his name and that he was far from being gay.
Even though Khushwant called himself an atheist, he seemed to maintain a close connection with his Sikh religion. He wrote several books on Sikhism, never gave up his Sikh headgear, and even returned his Padma Bhushan in protest against Operation Bluestar.
Even though I haven’t read too many of Khushwant Singh’s books, the “Train to Pakistan” is a memorable one and was also made into a feature film.
Here’s a little excerpt from his column from a few years ago:

I also got a lot of hate mail. It did not upset me. However, one letter from Canada became a memento. It had the foulest Punjabi abuse accusing me of all manners of incestuous relationships. They were in Gurmukhi. Only the address was in English and very brief: “Bastard Khush-want Singh, India”.
I was most impressed by the efficiency of the Indian Postal Service in locating the address of the one and only bastard in the country.

Good bye, Khush!

7 Myths That Need Broken for Pro-377 Indians

Read this post in Hindi

In 1861, the British created Article 377 of the Indian Penal Code, criminalizing homosexual behavior. A century and a half later, our attempts to get rid of this archaic law have come to a naught. Most of my friends on social networks have had something to say about the situation, and very few of them have found the Supreme Court’s decision reinstating the anti-sodomy law deplorable. Some who find the decision correct are from a generation before me, who don’t surprise me that much, but there are many who are from my generation and some from the next generation – so called millennials. I do find myself to be the lone liberal in this group of conservatives, but there is a good thing to this — the conversation has started and it will only help bring facts to life and inform people and open their eyes. At least that is what I hope. I have myself had my share of reservations about homosexuals, so I cannot fault the naysayers completely. But as I have read up and got more information about the issues involved, my opinion has evolved into full acceptance of homosexual people. I hope the Indian public and policy makers keep an open mind, get informed and rethink their opinions.
I have not had time to watch the debates on the issue on Indian TV in recent days. However, people on social networks have been complaining about media’s “outcry against the SC decision”, therefore I assume the opponents of Article 377 have got some kind of a platform there. On social networks, however, supporters of the article seem to be having a field day. Following these conversations has brought forward a number of prejudices, preconceptions and misconceptions that people have about gay people. Since most of these people have a logical and scientific bent of mind, I hope for some change of hearts.
In this post, I will try to debunk 7 major myths that Indian people have about homosexuality.
1. Homosexuality causes AIDS
Yes, I have heard some people say this. But, as we all know this cannot be farther from the truth. AIDS is caused by transmission of the HIV virus which can be transmitted by many methods one of which is promiscuous unprotected sex, be it heterosexual or homosexual. Yes, anal sex (man-man or man-woman) is understood to increase the possibility of transmission of the virus. Hence among AIDS victims, MSM are in a greater percentage. However, if a homosexual couple is healthy and committed to each other, and has no exposure to the virus, there is no reason for their sex acts to cause or spread AIDS. So, if your worry is spread of AIDS, be an opponent of unprotected promiscuous sex, not of homosexuality itself. Encourage commitments in same sex relationships, not their criminalization.
2. Homosexuality is a mental illness
Yes, people claiming to be psychologists have told me that. However, American Psychiatry Association (APA) says it isn’t so. Now this association is not some club of western culture, but a group of educated physicians who have reached this conclusion after detailed research and studies. Forty years ago APA removed homosexuality from the list of mental disorders in their DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which is considered a reference standard by psychiatrists and psychologists the world over). If you haven’t removed it from your list, it may be time to do so now. Even Indian Psychiatry Association has some interesting articles on the issue on their website, all indicating the same thing – that homosexuality is not a disease and nobody becomes gay of their free will. Who in the world would want to be a social outcast on purpose?
3. Homosexuality is unnatural
OK, what do you mean by unnatural? Something not happening in nature, or not intended by God? If you believe in God, then possibly this is how God made them (homosexual people), therefore who are we to judge them and not accept them as part of the society? There are 1500 species in nature who commit homosexual acts. If your argument is that sex between same gender does not produce children, then tell me what is the prime purpose of sex — expression of mutual love, enjoyment, or procreation? Out of all the sexual acts you have committed, how many have been with the purpose of procreation? Moreover, sex is not all that relationships are based on. Just like us, homosexual couples also have multidimensional relationships and sex is just one of those dimensions. If you don’t believe in God, then I expect you would not have such prejudices in the first place. If you do, I would like to hear from you in the comments box below.
4. Homosexuality is a Western malaise, and against our culture
If you ask me, I’d say it is the Article 377 that is a Western malaise, not homosexuality. This law was created by the British in 1861, and its inspiration must have been the Western prejudices not Indian culture. Now the British have left, but left us with their laws. Back in Britain they have even legalized gay marriage, but we are still wedded to their laws. In Hinduism, homosexuality is not as explicitly condemned as it is in Islam and Christianity. Hindu mythology has characters like Ardhanarishvara and Shikhandi. Khajuraho and other ancient temples are full of sculptures depicting homosexuality (see this page). What I want to say is that in ancient India many aspects of male-female sexuality were possible. On the other hand, in some Muslim countries, it is a crime even to talk about homosexuality. Even in Western countries, while gays are gaining more acceptance, custodians of “culture” are crying foul. So, whom do we want to emulate in India? Or do we want to keep our laws secular and not inspired by religious dogma? It is not a matter of aping the West, as some make it out to be. It is a matter of doing the right thing. Now if you would rather talk about Indian culture, let us talk about the practice of Sati, untouchability, casteism, etc. Are we not trying to get rid of all these evils? Then why not get rid of our prejudices against homosexuals too?
5. The number of homosexuals is negligible
This argument is used to justify that homosexuals do not need specific laws to protect their interests. This argument is faulty on many levels. Will you make laws discriminating against people who are blind, deaf, or left-handed if their numbers are small? Secondly, their numbers seems low particularly because they have to keep themselves hidden to escape social ridicule. Granted their numbers are much much smaller than those of heterosexuals, but they are not as negligible as Ahmedinejad claimed to be in Iran. In your school, in your office, in the train you ride, you may have come across people who are living double lives because they cannot come out. OK, let’s leave homosexuals aside and talk about hijras. Why does our society force them to live secluded lives and almost beg for their survival? Why can they not work in offices, schools? Are they responsible for their plight? Nobody wants to be lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender of their free will, nor can they change their sexual identity even if they wished to. Try to be in their shoes — what if you or I were in their place?
6. Same sex marriage reduces the sanctity of marriage
Well, this argument is not that common yet in India, because we are still stuck in criminalization of homosexual relationships. Same sex marriage is still a far cry from reality. However, as same sex marriage becomes more acceptable in the West, Christian fundamentalists keep complaining that this is changing the definition of marriage. Another faulty argument. It is not changing the definition of marriage for you. You can still marry whom you want and nobody is forcing gay marriage on you. But if gays are getting married to each other, how is that impacting you? How does someone else getting his right make the rights you have lesser? If you force a gay person into matrimony with a straight person, two lives will be ruined. In India, we may have countless such couples. So, we have no right to snatch others’ rights, particularly when their rights do not harm us.
7. If you allow homosexuality, what is next – sex with animals?
Lots of people talk about the “slippery slope” to incest and bestiality. But there is no logical reason to be afraid of that. First of all, advocates of rights for homosexuals talk about consensual sex, which is not possible in case of bestiality. Either way, laws should only concern themselves with rapes and forcible sexual encounters, and not define who one can have consensual sex with. On the other hand, if religious reasons are used to guide our laws, many other laws infringing on our personal freedom can be made.

Anyway, there is no end to arguments and counter-arguments. What I am trying to say is that people who are against rights for homosexuals are on the wrong side of time. Future generations will fight these laws and sooner or later these draconian laws will end, just as Sati practice and untouchability ended. Also pay attention to the fact that the Supreme Court has not basically justified the law, but has said that the law needs to be changed by legislation. This is technically correct, but there is not much hope from the Parliament here. The highest court in the land has lost an opportunity to correct a historical wrong.
To some extent, one can be thankful that such laws are not enforced as strictly as they are in Muslim countries. But still, the existence of such laws means that the Police can keep asking for bribes for yet another act which should be legal. It also means that LGBT people will keep facing problems in getting jobs, housing, getting married, adopting kids, and so on.
With this hope that in near future all LGBT people will get full rights, I sign off and welcome your responses.
Oh, one more thing. Even though Article 377 is considered an anti-homosexuality law, it does not meet even that objective properly. It only outlaws sodomy, which means on one hand it does not outlaw lesbian relationships, and on the other hand it does outlaw anal sex between legally married man and woman, which carries a ten year imprisonment as punishment. Therefore, it is not just a matter of annulling this ridiculous law, but of ending the discrimination against homosexuals as a whole. Yes, in our society PDA makes many people uncomfortable; therefore both types of couples should limit their intimate acts to the privacy of their homes and bedrooms. Our conventional society deserves at least this concession.

God, Jerusalem and Democrats

In the Democratic National Convention yesterday, rationalism died a painful death, just in order to keep God alive. In spite of two evenings of great speeches, the DNC’s decision to sneak God back onto the platform, that too via the back-door, did not win any fans.
Briefly, this is what happened. Democratic party’s “platform” (party manifesto?) announced and accepted earlier in the week had, thankfully, omitted the word “God” in its text. Turns out their platform had mentioned the name of this imaginary entity seven times in its platform 8 years ago, and once in its platform 4 years ago. It only made sense that by the third convention of the 21st century, this unnecessary item should have wound its way out of the manifesto of a progressive political party in a first world country. Additionally, DNC’s platform had omitted the mention of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel — which I personally don’t care about much. Even though they had not said that God doesn’t exist (which it doesn’t), or that Tel Aviv is the capital of Israel (that is where most embassies are situated), Republicans (via Fox TV) jumped on both “omissions”, and in order to not risk losing votes over the issue, Democrats decided to make amends.
The amendments to the platform were presented to the delegates by the DNC Chair and LA mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, with the apparent expectation that the voice vote will be only a formality. However, the “no” votes sounded as loud, if not louder, than the “aye” votes. He tried it three times, and finally gave up and declared the amendment passed by two-thirds affirmative vote. So much for democracy. And so much for rationality. Watch the voice vote in the following video.

Initially the chorus of “no” votes gave me hope that there may be some rational atheists in the party who are ready to make themselves heard; then I realized that I was being naive to be so hopeful. Turns out the loudest “no”s came from some democrats carrying “Arab American” banners, who must have been opposing the Israel language, not the God language. There is no way to tell if there were any delegates who were opposed to the inclusion of God. I would think that people who would want Israel excluded would be for God, and vice versa. Therefore clubbing the two amendments may not have been a wise move.
Is it possible that there are many more atheists in the Democratic party than are ready to be identified? Is it possible that even Barack Obama is a closeted atheist, and may come out after the political pressures on him are relieved. After all, he did come out for gay marriage this year, even though he had earlier not shown his support for it. After all, he did comment during the 2008 campaign that working class people frustrated with their condition “cling to religion and guns”. Unfortunately, in the current political climate, these statements and logical “omissions” are brushed aside as gaffes or genuine mistakes. When will rationalism and atheism have enough takers so that people own up to these well meaning statements and non-statements?

Doodle for Google 2012

Google has announced an interesting competition for creative school kids in the US. Children K-12 (Kindergarten through 12th Grade) can participate in this competition to submit “doodles” with the theme “If I could travel in time, I’d visit…”. The prize is a $30,000 college scholarship for the kid plus a $50,000 technology grant for his or her school.
Watch the video below for some more information.

Of course the contest has its own home page, where all the detailed terms and conditions, and entry forms are provided. Although the video above says the participants have to be US citizens, the FAQ clearly says:

At the time of submitting the doodle, the student must be a U.S. citizen or a permanent U.S. legal resident (e.g., must be able to show proof of legal permanent residence, for example, a “green card”), be enrolled in a U.S. based school and be living in the U.S.

The submissions are due by March 23, 2012.