A Paradise for All Who Take Offense

By Joseph, Manu | International Herald Tribune, January 31, 2013 | Go to article overview

A Paradise for All Who Take Offense


Joseph, Manu, International Herald Tribune


The first reaction of the state in India is to appease those who claim to have been offended.

One of India's favorite spectator sports is "taking offense." People go about their lives, brushing their teeth, ironing their shirts, waiting for the bus. Then some man somewhere says something ordinary and a community erupts in what looks like joy even though they say they are offended. They go in a carnival procession to some place to announce that they are offended, often laughing and waving to the television cameras. Politicians express their deep hurt at what the man has said and demand swift action from other politicians. The police file criminal charges against the offender, and the offender then begins to say he has been misquoted, possibly by himself.

But the carnival does not wish to die down early. That was what the crowd outside the Jaipur Literature Festival was about last Saturday evening. Men were cheering, laughing and screaming as a television journalist was reporting their claim that they had been insulted by a speaker at the festival.

A few hours before, an amiable billionaire stood on the fringes of a huge audience and listened to a serious debate on the topic "Freedom of Speech and Expression." A hilarious thought must have crossed his mind, for he chuckled, fell silent, and then said to me: "What freedom of speech? Now a masked man should rise from the audience, and tearing his mask he must reveal himself as Salman Rushdie. This debate will end right now, and everybody can go home."

Last year, Mr. Rushdie, whose novel "The Satanic Verses" was met with protests and death threats from those who said it insulted the Prophet Muhammad, was forced to cancel his appearance at the Jaipur Literature Festival after some Muslim groups said they would be offended by his presence and the government of Rajasthan, the state whose capital is Jaipur, said it could not guarantee his safety.

But what the amiable billionaire and I did not realize was that a festival session that morning had already set in motion a chain of events that would remind everyone, once again, that India encourages discussions of free speech but not free speech itself.

In a session titled "Republic of Ideas," one of the panel members, the sociologist Ashis Nandy, said something that only fellow Indians would immediately understand.

"It will be an undignified and vulgar statement, but the fact is that most of the corrupt come from the O.B.C., the S.C.'s and now increasingly S.T.'s," he said, referring to "other backward classes," "scheduled castes" and "scheduled tribes." "As long as this is the case," he said, "the Indian republic will survive."

What he meant was that most of India's corrupt are from the historically disadvantaged groups officially called the backward castes. From a purely statistical point of view, this is an unremarkable statement given that the castes he had mentioned together constitute a majority of the Indian population. …

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