Free speech debate turns into political slugfest at JLF

Jaipur, Jan 25 (IANS) A debate on Monday at the Jaipur Literature Festival on the limits on the freedom of speech turned into a political slugfest between supporters of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal in front of a mammoth and politically-divided crowd.

Shrugging off reports on intolerance as selective outrage, actor Anupam Kher, who maintained that freedom of speech comes with a sense of responsibility, clashed with Delhi Culture Minister Kapil Mishra in the debate “Is Freedom of Speech Absolute and Unconditional” on the last day of the five-day festival.

Targeting Kejriwal, Kher said it was only in India where one could call the prime minister a psychopath and get away with it.

Mishra retorted there was a small group of the same people that was targeting expressions of free speech but people were free to call his Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) leaders whatever they wanted to – and did.

The AAP would not be deterred from using the names they have for Modi or Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi, Mishra added.

He also maintained that the people would not let the India of 2016 be run on the lines of 1984, 1992 and 2002, referring to the anti-Sikh riots, the Babri Masjid demolition and the Gujarat riots.

Hitting out at both the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Congress, Mishra blamed former prime minister Indira Gandhi for intimidating the press during the emergency. He also batted for youth’s right to share candid opinions on social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. As sections of the crowd started chanting Modi’s name, and Kher encouraged them from stage by pumping his fist, other speakers urged against the debate being made political by dragging in Modi’s and Kejriwal’s names. Kher defended himself, saying that he didn’t bring Modi’s name but he “appreciated it”.

In his remarks earlier, Kher had argued that since one is not likely to use an expletive for his father, one must similarly refrain from abusing the country’s people. “A sense of responsibility and restraint is essential to maintain the sanctity of what we call freedom,” he said, holding that India gives its citizens a large amount of freedom.

Dalit activist P. Sivakami said that women in India have always been deprived of freedom and thus needed “absolute freedom so that women can live on their terms and conditions”.

She also stated that India is a multi-cultural land where people from all communities should be allowed to speak up without fear. She objected to even an iota of press censorship. “Censorship won’t let the subjected and oppressed communities raise their voices,” she said.

Demanding absolute freedom, senior journalist Madhu Trehan quoted some recent incidents where entertainment shows were censored. “AIB got a legal notice for organising a roast show where they mocked celebrities…”

Noting that comedians are being arrested, she said: “Kiku Sharda was taken in custody by the police after he played a religious guru on a comedy show.”

Journalist and writer Salil Tripathi reminded people of the basic principles of a “good society”, where people argue but still shake hands. He urged people to agree to disagree and be tolerant of different opinions. He said that burning or banning of books or paintings have no place in a civilised society. “Burning of books is a prelude to burning people.”

Writer Pavan Kumar Varma, a former Indian Foreign Service officer, stressed that freedom is not unfettered and “reasonable restrictions” can be imposed on the freedom of speech and incitement to hatred and violence cannot qualify as freedom of speech. He also cited the Shankaracharya to urge listening to those who disagree.

Author, columnist and socialite Suhel Seth also did not support the idea of absolute freedom as it may introduce forms of private and public abuse that “hijack the discourse of a nation”.

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