Free speech vs the flag

June 11,2016

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Over the last few days, the media has been full of stories of people who have spoken up, both in favour of their personal fundamental rights as well as more generally, against prejudice, chauvinism and fundamentalism. These include heavyweight boxer Muhammad Ali as well as the survivors of the Gujarat 2002 riots in which approximately a thousand Muslims were killed.

Ali, who famously refused the Vietnam draft, told the press, “I got nothing against them, Viet Cong”, especially when, he added, his own country was racially discriminating against him.

Back here in India, in a recently published book called ‘Gujarat Files’, by the journalist-writer Rana Ayyub, key people in the Gujarat power structure told her on a hidden camera that the orders for the 2002 pogrom came right from the top, including then chief minister Narendra Modi and his home minister and now BJP party president Amit Shah.

I thought of Ali and these ordinary Gujaratis, of the one thing that defined them both: they constantly struggled to push the envelope in favour of personal dignity, right to life and liberty and equality as well as freedom of speech and expression.

So many ideals, I thought, enshrined in our constitution by our founding fathers. The question is: what happens when we circumscribe these rights and ideals within parameters like ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’ or ‘Pakistan Zindabad’?

Let me say, straightaway and clearly, that I have no problem with people who avow their nationalism on their sleeve or their heart or any other part of their body.

In fact, I know many journalists who believe that journalism – whether reportage, analysis or opinion – must be a reflection of this nationalism. That ‘national interest’ must be front and centre to the writing of any copy or TV debate or online comment.

Interestingly, when that journalist is Indian or Pakistani, it seems as if the pressure to conform to his/her respective establishment becomes even greater. For example, to write about the Gujarat riots in a Pakistani paper is far worse for an Indian journalist than to write the same story for any other newspaper in any other part of the world.

This charge, of selling out the national interest, is very interesting because it implies that ‘national interest’ is a construct that changes with time and place. When there was only one country 70 years ago, who could you be selling out to? In the present tense, for example, should all the South Asian media support the editor of the Bangladeshi newspaper ‘Daily Star’, Mahfuz Anam, against whom the Sheikh Hasina government has slapped 67 cases of sedition?

If you were to apply the ‘national interest’ principle, then it would follow that Indian journalists should favour Bangladeshi Prime Minister Hasina Wajid, because India had supported Bangladesh in the creation of the new country in 1971. But the story becomes much more complicated when you dig deeper. Mahfuz Anam is not only a brave editor, he was very much part of his country’s freedom movement.

Just like Muhammad Ali, who was willing to go to jail but would not join the unequal draft for Vietnam. Remember that people like Bill Clinton also evaded the draft by crossing the Atlantic and going to study in Oxford, a place well-known to the entire subcontinental elite.

In India and in Pakistan, the anti-establishment faces new stresses and strains every day. Several journalists and writers use laughter as an instrument to infiltrate the establishment, as Mohammed Hanif so effectively did with his ‘A Case of Exploding Mangoes.’

In India, the mainstream media almost completely blanked out Rana Ayyub’s book on the Gujarat riots (read my story on a website called ‘The Hoot’ which watches media in the Subcontinent:, except for the ‘Indian Express’ and later ‘The Hindu.’ Were these newspapers censoring themselves?

Interestingly, all the web news portals – and there are several these days – covered Ayyub’s book, allowing the story to come out in one way or another. That’s the point of our increasingly globalised news sharing world these days. India cannot have an Emergency of the type we did from 1975-77 (when the press was infamously told to bend, and it crawled), if only because you can’t gag the press fully anymore.

This new media can afford to be irreverent and disrespectful and laughs at the government quite easily. Some of its journalists say ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’ and some don’t. Certainly, it’s taken on some of the responsibilities of the old media, including the right to be unafraid.

The problem, of course, with sloganeering like ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’ or ‘Pakistan Zindabad’ is that the person raising the slogan believes in ‘my country is better than yours’. Across the world, people have invoked the power of nationalism to suit their own ends and South Asia is no different.

The question is: should South Asians be satisfied with the identities our nations allot us, by accident of birth, or can we reach across the region and try and create a Homo SouthAsianicus? Can I be both, Indian and South Asian, for example?

Must I stand when my own national anthem is played, or can I sing the words of another? Most importantly, can I disavow flags of all shapes, sizes and colour?

As Pakistan readies to host the Saarc summit later this year, perhaps our region’s citizens can together, on the margins of this conference, debate these issues that our leaders dare not.

The writer is a Delhi-based journalist who is passionate about debate and discussion across South Asia.


Twitter: jomalhotra


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