Anil Thakraney: Freedom of expression – conditions apply

27 Jan,2012

By Anil Thakraney


I write this piece on Republic Day. And, in the fitness of things, would like to discuss that much used and abused phrase, ‘Freedom of speech’. The only sad thing is that on this occasion the debate has been fired by that rabble-rouser called Salman Rushdie. Wish the trigger had been a nobler soul.


Anyway, let’s first understand Sir Rushdie’s latest antics: I can assure you the colourful author is extremely thrilled with all the free attention he just got at the Jaipur Litfest. And he must be celebrating the drama over some hard stuff. In fact, Vinod Mehta was being quite accurate when he said, during a TV debate, that Rushdie himself ‘inspired’ all the madness involving him.


I have been writing quite edgy columns and stories in the mass press and the trade press for some years now, and I have had my share of dissing and abuse from readers. Not only do I treat negative feedback as par for the course, I encourage it because it helps further dissect an issue. It provokes thought, and in my world view, that’s the whole objective of writing. Sugary puff pieces do not lead to any change (apart from inflicting diabetes) and are therefore a waste of time. Given that ideology, I obviously support and cherish the freedom of speech we enjoy in this country. And yet, I have no time or respect for people like Salman Rushdie and MF Husain. No, they certainly did not deserve violent threats, but it’s equally true that they abused the freedom of speech.


So here’s my own stand on the matter. No, the freedom to express isn’t conditions-less, it carries with it a great deal of responsibility. As writers and artists, while we must provoke thought, we must never hurt people by trashing objects/issues close to their hearts. Trashing and making fun of religion leads to no change at all, it’s simply a mischievous trick to get instant attention. Exactly as a naughty pupil would chuck a piece of chalk at the teacher to get her attention. In all these years of writing, I have taken utmost care not to mock people’s religious beliefs or scoff at their faith. Sure, we can and must discuss religious practices, even debate them, but we must NEVER take ‘creative liberties’ with holy figures. I did not go to a communication school (in fact, I studied microbiology!) but this is like common sense stuff for me.


So let’s get this right: Rushdie had no business making fun of the prophet. And Husain had no business sketching goddesses in the nude. Both gentlemen, both very intelligent beings, knew perfectly well there would be a backlash. They courted trouble, got it, and then paid a price for it. Therefore I have no sympathy for them. Since Husain saab is gone, all we can say is may his soul rest in peace. As for Rushdie, his continued belligerence and irrational support from his fans is quite worrying. This means quite a few literate people still haven’t understood the idea of freedom of expression.


No, it isn’t absolute. In fact, nothing in this world is absolute except for the vodka brand.




PS: Was recently reminded of David Ogilvy’s hottest tip for writing great copy. This is for the benefit of those who may not have read his books: “If all else fails, I drink half a bottle of rum and play a Handel oratorio on the gramophone. This generally produces an uncontrollable gush of copy.” Have fun. But drink responsibly. And more importantly, create responsibly.


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2 responses to “Anil Thakraney: Freedom of expression – conditions apply”

  1. Salil Khetani says:

    It’s not about freedom of expression but about freedom of thought! We’ve got to have the right to question ancient beliefs of any religion! The world can only progress intellectually if people question staunchly held dogmas!

  2. Mahesh Menon says:

    When you say nothing is absolute, i can understand, In an ideal world it would work but this isn’t one. And if we concede freedom of epression is not absolute then who is to decide, where the line should be drawn.
    I am no Sir Rushdie’s fan or a MF Hussian fan but I think absolute freedom should be encouraged.

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