Who will defend free speech?
Looking at the cartoon for which a Jadavpur University professor had to face assault, multiple criminal cases, and even arrest, one begins to suspect some sort of a conspiracy. Surely, this cartoon can’t possibly offended anyone even mildly sane. It is completely innocuous! Apparently it has offended the Bengal government so much that it has set its goons/police after this poor professor. And if this was not enough, Mamta Bannerjee has strongly defended her government’s actions promising that her relentless pursuit of criminals cannot be thwarted by protests from interested parties.
Even in a country where free speech has to be defended ‘book by book’, Mamta Banerjee’s actions mark a new low. Hindi heartland politicians like Laloo Yadav and Mulyam Singh who were never shy of flaunting their friendship with criminals never went after a mere cartoon like this. Hell! Even Thackerays are not this contemptuous of criticism.
There is no need to mince words here. Mamta Banerjee is either completely delusional or power has gone to her head to the extent that she simply does not care two hoots for even minimal democratic norms. What is even more worrying is that surely she would have realized that her government’s actions would be widely criticized. Yet, she had no qualms in asking her goons to go after the professor. And this after the Park hotel fiasco when her government dismissed claims of a rape as a conspiracy. With Mamta it appears that everyone is a conspiring against her government—women are prepared to be raped merely to besmirch her good name. It is clear that Mamta and her band of merry followers believe intrinsically in her divinity and their actions merely betray their totalitarian mindset. Indeed that is the real worry: Mamta’s actions are not posturings; she appears to believe in her own conspiracies.
Or maybe she just believes that the those march for free speech are such a tiny minority that their voices can easily be muzzled or simply ignored. Her pro-people credentials are secured by her actions like vetoing the railway budget; why should she bother about largely inconsequential critics sitting in distant New Delhi?
If Mamta is allowed to get away with actions, then it is only likely to embolden her further. Watch out for assaults on journalists or shutting down newspapers who are even mildly critical of her. Or may be the citizens of Bengal will suddenly discover that their access to social media has suddenly disappeared. In that light, it is certainly heartening that newspapers have published the impugned cartoons. Clearly, the cartoons are so inoffensive that even the usual pliant media has no issues publishing them.
But that’s precisely how we have reached this sad state. Newspapers may publish opinion columns supporting free speech but the slightest whiff of controversy—especially if it offends the perpetually offended religious folks—then the media is ready to bend when asked to crawl. Only recently, The Telegraph published an apology for mentioning a completely innocent picture which offended some Muslim groups; at that time too the Mamta government was quickly off the blocks in threatening the newspaper. There are plenty other cases of similar nature only in the last decade. Most newspapers did not even bother covering this episode.
Ultimately, if free speech is to be defended then someone in the media will have to take a stand. That someone may even pay a severe personal or professional price.
India awaits her 21st century Ramnath Goenka.