Why are we so hypocritical about freedom of expression? 
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The YouTube episode ‘Campus Talk Ep-2: Freedom of Expression in Educational Institutions’ on a show-cause notice issued to a school principal for playing the election song of VPP during Teachers’ Day celebrations made for interesting viewing. 

It was an eclectic panel: academicians, practitioners and political representatives debating the justification and rationale of the government’s action. It was quite curious that the Law Minister, Dr Ampareen Lyngdoh, was unaware of the provisions under which the show cause notice had been sent. After all, there is rule number 20 of the Meghalaya Service (Conduct) Rules 2019, which states that “No Government employee shall… (take) part in politics, or whose activities have a political bearing, nor shall he (she) take part in aid of, or assist in any other manner, any political movement or activity”. It was expected that an issue that has been on the public forum, especially a matter of rules (law), would attract the attention of the Law Minister.

Nevertheless, a cursory reading of the rule supports the rationale behind the show cause notice. Though the VPP may have distanced itself from the song, there’s no doubt it is a song connected to a political party. Not accepting that is disingenuous. Although, as it has been claimed, there was a demand from the students for the song, as the head of an educational institution, it is expected that ethics (if not rules) should have alerted the principal that this could be interpreted as showing favouritism to a certain political organisation. Not just children: fully mature adults look to authority for validation of their biases. 

If the head of an institution gives the impression that they have no problem allowing their position to, what appears to be neutral observers, canvass for a certain group, then it is a matter of concern. What such actions do is reinforce the support for the particular group among some while kindling it among others since the sanction has come from someone in authority? So, it can be argued that the principal should have been more careful.

However, that is not the only impression that can be derived from the issue. As argued by others on the panel, issuing the show cause notice decreases the scope of freedom of expression in the state. In the name of keeping politics out of educational institutions, what else will be censored in the future? The law minister gave a list of things that included, among other things, the possibility of censoring something blasphemous. The topic was especially debated, with the example of satanic songs being constantly mentioned. 

One panellist even stated that she would have no problem with people playing satanic songs as long as it does not encourage them to engage in violence. This is an old argument against a certain kind of music, which also includes a certain genre of video game that, it is claimed, exhorts especially young people to commit violence. I don’t know about peer-reviewed literature that supports such an argument or if it comes from WhatsApp University, where you have amateur political scientists, historians, and philosophers who give their own two cents as legitimate claims about certain things. I do know that violence wasn’t invented by heavy metal music or video games. 

If that was the case, how do we explain the prevalence of violence in the past when these hadn’t been invented? Or are we claiming that the past was a golden age where everyone was dancing around the fire, singing songs, and hugging each other?

Also, the idea of blasphemy or insult to a certain religion itself has been used as a justification for many atrocities in the past. For example, the Inquisition of the Catholic Church to punish heresy throughout Europe and the Americas is infamous for its torture and its persecution of minorities, especially Jews and Muslims. Thousands died in the bid to preserve the sanctity of the faith. In recent times, a Pakistani Christian woman, Aasiya Noreen, also known as Asia Bibi, was convicted of blasphemy by a Pakistani court and sentenced to death by hanging. Later, she was acquitted, but she had to leave the country to save her life. 

The whole emphasis on blasphemy was a very disturbing portent towards such prospects. I remember some time ago attending a queer programme in Shillong at an institute connected to a religious denomination. Later, I was told that there was holy water sprinkled in the room where the performance took place to sanctify the space. In the future, when blasphemy becomes a very serious matter, it will not be just holy water but a penal action that will be administered to the occupants of the space. Am I blowing things out of proportion? But how else would one enforce the rule if there’s no punishment? What will be the incentive? It’s just logical.

But there was one point that Tarun Bhartiya, one of the panellists, brought to attention that was pertinent to the debate. He stated that “we defend freedom of expression with whom we agree, with whom the majority agrees… that is a hypocrisy that exists here also… freedom of expression, much more than the state is suppressed by the community”. The example of heavy metal music being blasphemous emerged from that conversation. One could sense others becoming uncomfortable being put on the docks since they had hoped that it would be the government who would be the one answering and not them. 

There was an attempt by some to show acceptance of the freedom of expression to play any music, but once a disclaimer is attached (it should not lead to violence), it becomes clear that such freedom falls under the realm of ‘reasonable restrictions’, whose interpretation will depend on those exercising the power.

I completely agree with Tarun regarding the hypocrisy of using the argument of freedom of expression, and I have a very relevant example from the reservation saga from a couple of months ago. Many Khasi messaged me privately that they agreed with my position against the review of the reservation policy and that the whole issue was nothing but an attempt to gain political mileage. However, when I asked them if they could also share their views in public, they politely refused because they feared backlash. 

They were especially worried that taking such a stand would invite allegations of being a ‘traitor’ to the community. There has always been censorship for taking a divergent stand, especially on emotional issues where the supposed good of the community is at stake. For example, how will Khasi society react if a Khasi takes a stand against the introduction of ILP or marginalisation of the non-indigenous community in the state, to name just two? I think we know the answer to that question. So, like Tarun said, let’s not be hypocrites.

The censorship that exists in Khasi society is enforced by various bodies, which range from the Church to pressure groups that are quick to brand someone as anti-Christian or anti-Jaidbynriew if there is an opinion different from what they profess. Excommunications, threats of violence, or actual violence are used as deterrents to suppress any divergent view. The government is nothing but an extension of that psyche of society, which is threatening to use legal means to punish those who espouse a view that goes against their interests. 

Today it’s the MDA government; tomorrow it might be another government, but the story will not change. An intolerant society will breed intolerant governments. To break the cycle, there has to be a genuine appreciation of different voices and the patience to listen and maybe act on them. Only then will freedom of expression be truly safe.

So what should be the outcome of the show cause notice? I feel that since, as per the newspaper report, the principal has already apologised, the matter should be dropped. A message has been sent (whether we agree with that or not), and that will act as a deterrent for others as well. But if the government decides to go ahead and punish the principal, they will create a martyr, which will be used by their political opponents to galvanise support against them. There will be an argument made that any leniency will project weakness. I disagree.

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I think it will project magnanimity. Fear is useful in a dictatorship, but in a democracy, it can be counterproductive unless the government can control to whom the people cast their vote on the secret ballot. Showing that you care and are willing to give someone a chance to correct a mistake is a much better way of ensuring loyalty. Maybe this whole saga will start a genuine conversation about freedom of expression in our society. One can only hope.

(The views expressed in the article are those of the author and do not reflect in any way his affiliation to any organisation or institution). 

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