Freedom of Expression- Debate Revisited

Apparently, it’s a bit absurd to discuss our freedom of expression, centuries later after it seeds were first sown but the dramatic manner in which complex dimensions have been added to our society, it becomes compelling on our part to revisit and achieve a nuanced understanding of those concepts which so profoundly defines our lives.

Two harrowing instances, one local and other global were witnessed recently. The similarities remain in the manner in which the freedom of expression was interrogated and suppressed by non social elements.

Two sides of a coin


The events unfolding in Charlie Hebdo killings was without a doubt an ugly epitome of barbarism, you can’t kill anyone for just drawing a cartoon! However, there is a subtle yet stark flip side to it which also cannot be ignored. Many intellectuals came to the centre stage and made the idea of ‘provocation’ apparent. There’s a huge difference between lampooning the pope and insulting Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) because one is a representative of a religion while other remains the most revered figure of Islam.

Devdutta Patnaik a famous mythologist and author intensely argued the idea of mental harm as opposed to physical harm in one of his articles in which he suggests that just because mental harm cannot be measured doesn’t necessarily mean that harm done by physical means was less effective! Why provoke rage among Muslims when they strictly denounce drawing of caricatures of their Prophet? Why replace his turban with a grenade when he never encouraged killing? He is the undisputed symbol of humanity; show him in positive light please.

The fundamental spirit of Islam which denounces images and image worship was somewhere getting damaged. Having said that, I am by no means justifying the brutal killings, rather drawing a line which shouldn’t be overstepped in the name of exercising our rights.

“Death of the author”

The other depressing array of events was experienced in Southern part of our country, a region historically and contemporarily rich in literary achievements. Perumal Murugan’s novel “Mathorubhagan” became the subject of intense controversy because he imagines sex rite being held in his own village to conceive a child to a childless couple in his village a hundred years ago!

Unlike Charlie Hebdo, the scenario here was soaked in politics. Claiming to hurt sentiments of Hindus and disrespecting women, the Right wing Hindu Munnani Party supported by RSS demanded deletion of portions of books, unconditional apology and withdrawal of the unsold copies of his novel.

Further inquiry however, unveils a poignant reality of suppression of a voice for self centered political gains. The right wing intelligently grabbed this opportunity to provoke the devout being in every Hindu and establish its foothold in the politics of Tamil Nadu which as yet remained unrecognized.

But what bothers me is the denial of their own scriptures. What was dramatized in Murugan’s novel is very clearly mentioned and sanctioned as ‘Niyoga’ in Mahabharata and Atharva Veda. A man can transfer his conjugal rights to produce an heir. Another disturbing fact remains the outbreak of outrage four years after the book was published, essentially when it was translated into English! A chronicler was silenced for imagining a story which was concurrent to past. Politics led to the “death of the author”

The different similarity

Right to expression is accompanied with threats, sometimes which turn out to be lethal. In both the incidents the voice was silenced for targeting the faiths of people which clearly suggests the intolerance and social conservatism that still holds our ideas. The two distant incidents are also similar in the killing of the voice, one brutally physical, other intensely mental. The cartoonists and Murugan will not be voicing their opinions again. Our views shall not be suppressed by any hindering element but creative rationality must acknowledge the boundaries; more appropriate, the responsibilities!


By Zainab Rashid



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