Free speech and the riff raff

Posted: January 26, 2015 in Free speech
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In this day and age, a lot of journalists are finding it difficult to hide their political leanings. However, newspaper editors, if not reporters, are supposed to be level-headed, calm and very balanced in their views on a public space, because after all, what they say is read by so many and can influence so many others. And today, Facebook or twitter is public space, for all practical purposes.

Unfortunately, there is also a new breed of zealots whose idea of freedom of expression is to lament the death of free speech in India, while continuously abusing the politician they hate. Take what happened today at the R Day parade. The vice president Hamid Ansari was abused by goons on the social networking sites for disrespecting the national flag. He didn’t salute the flag, while Modi and the president did. In effect, according to protocol only people in uniform are supposed to salute the flag, the rest are supposed to stand at attention. How many of us salute the flag when the national anthem plays even in a movie theatre? But then, there’s really nothing much one can expect from such people. In their favour, one can say that at least they don’t hide their hatred for someone or some communities. But it’s not as if such nutcases abound in only one community.

The other day while I was on Facebook a former colleague who claims to be secular tried very subtly to justify the massacre of the journalists at Charlie Hebdo in Paris, with an extremely convoluted explanation. I read and let it pass. A little while later, in another attempt to justify the Paris massacre he asked what Indians would have done had celebrated cartoonist R.K. Laxman sketched India’s most popular leader and then described in some crude and graphic detail how (he didn’t name the leader, but it was obvious who he was referring to).

That’s when something inside me snapped. I really didn’t see any need to drag in India’s most respected cartoonist, especially when the man was near death. My question to him was ‘How different are you from the Hindu fanatic that you keep railing about?’ After which I added that he was as much a fundamentalist as the right-wing loonies he keeps blasting on his ‘personal space’ because the language he used to criticize people he hated was no different from theirs.

And this guy likes to call himself secular! So, in his secular world, it is okay to use foul language against anyone who he hates, whether it is the Indian prime minister, the government, the party, anything else with a saffron hue or anyone who even as much as says a good word against those he dislikes. My remarks obviously stung because he blocked me! I know he hates Modi with a passion for reasons that go back to 2002 and Gujarat. And I have no issues with that because this guy, like a lot of people in the country, hate not just Modi, but Amit Shah and everyone in the BJP and the RSS for the same reasons and more.

Even on earlier occasions, I have usually ignored his rants because there are others I know, who rant about the colour green and who believe all Muslims should be sent across the border or have unspeakable things done to them. A few days before this incident, he said something very crude on Facebook about finance minister Arun Jaitley and I was appalled. I prefer to read all such comments from both sides and ignore them. Heck, even I dislike some politicians, but you won’t find me calling them names on a public space. I’ve been a journalist long enough to know that.

This brings me to the question of free speech and freedom of expression that journalists keep shouting about that from the rooftops. Would this guy dare to criticise the government of the country where he was working? The people who criticise Sonia, Manmohan, Rahul and Modi and their respective governments also need to remember that it is because we have these rights and principles enshrined in our Constitution that we can say a lot and get away with it. One can get away with swearing at the vice president, prime minister or his ministers or for that matter anyone is because we have free speech.

The trolls and some politicians can say any crap they want because no one takes them seriously. That is why one expects journalists to be different. That is what distinguishes them from the genuine critics and the riff raff. I guess some journalists haven’t learnt the difference – or because their vision is so clouded they can’t see through it. So, how different are they from the riff raff?

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