COMMENT: Selective freedoms —Yasser Latif Hamdani - Monday, April 11, 2011

Gandhi’s image as a fighter for racial equality was carefully crafted and, historically, completely inaccurate, but India has invested far too much in this image to let it wither away for something as inconvenient as a fact

Right across the street from the Lahore High Court, that seat from which justice flows, is a bookseller who is disseminating hate literature against Shias and non-Muslim minorities, including that poor and unfortunate community deprecatingly referred to as Mirzais.

Lord Chief Justice of the Lahore High Court, Ijaz Chaudhry, has shown no real indication that he has any soft corner for or concern to allow religious and sectarian minorities in Pakistan to live freely as promised to them repeatedly by Pakistan’s leaders, the Objectives Resolution and all constitutions promulgated in the land. Meanwhile, according to the bookseller — in all earnestness — “those damned Mirzais are not even human, they are actually ‘satanic jinns’”. One could argue ‘freedom of speech’ but then, just like ‘freedom of religion’, in Pakistan the majority Muslims are more free and more ‘equal’ to exercise these rights.

There are two theories we can adopt vis-à-vis freedom of speech. There is the western theory of freedom of speech in which nothing is censored except that which incites violence. The second theory is the Islamic theory of freedom of speech, which limits it explicitly and clearly but fairly by saying, “Do not abuse their false gods, so that they may not abuse your true god.” Unfortunately, it seems in Pakistan, non-Muslim gods and faiths are free for all to abuse and attack. Is it any wonder then that the world pays no attention while Muslims burn their schools down in Afghanistan (and in the process many copies of the Holy Quran according to the headmistress of a girl’s school burned down in Kandahar) in reaction to that insane pastor from Florida?

Selective freedom of speech, as practised in South Asia, turned quite ugly recently when two half wits from either side of the border — Gautam Gambir and Shahid Khan Afridi — decided to indulge in an unfortunate spat. One effectively called all Pakistanis terrorists in so many words. The other decided to claim that there is a special blessing of Allah upon Pakistani Muslims, which makes them “large hearted”. Interesting that there is even divinely sanctioned discrimination against Pakistani non-Muslims and Indian Muslims!

Truth be told, India and Pakistan together constitute the most prejudiced and religion-obsessed backward populations in the world. India might be a secular democracy — largely due to the will of Nehru and Ambedkar — but it is as narrow minded in its prejudices as Pakistan. Of course, Pakistan is burdened twice over with both the cultural lag of eastern mysticism and the straitjacket of the western Abrahamic tradition. Religious prejudice permeates so deeply in South Asia and is so unshakable at its foundation that no aspect of modern life here is free of it. This in turn creates the cult of personality. All logic and reason then falls by the wayside. Take the controversy in India around a recent book called Great Soul by Joseph Lelyveld, a sympathetic take on the life of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. The book alludes to Gandhi’s views on the African race amongst other things. That Gandhi described the black people of South Africa as “savages” and almost subhuman is a well-known historical fact that anyone who has gone through his collected works knows. Indeed, it is the searing irony of our times that the US’s first black president attributes his success to the man who had argued that there is a natural racial hierarchy and Africans are the lowest of the low. Gandhi’s image as a fighter for racial equality was carefully crafted and, historically, completely inaccurate, but India has invested far too much in this image to let it wither away for something as inconvenient as a fact. Out comes the hue and cry over claims that Gandhi was bisexual instead — characteristic deflection. Now there is even talk of instituting a blasphemy law in India to protect Gandhi’s honour and status as a saint. The mob has to be satisfied and, as far as mobs go, India is a rather large one. Using the mob’s religious sensibility to silence difference of opinion is not a recent import. It reached fever pitch when Gandhi himself patronised Islamic clerics in the Khilafat Movement to drive out secular Muslims. Indian writers like Mani Shankar Aiyer and Javed Anand have taken to claiming that Gandhi used religion to unite the people. This is patently false. Gandhi used religion to turn Hindu against Hindu and Muslim against Muslim. He divided society between fundamentalists — who supported him — and liberals who by and large opposed him. This is in sharp contrast to the work that Sir Syed Ahmed Khan started in Aligarh where religious identity, not religion itself, had become a means to mobilise and unite sections within the Muslim community to work for such secular things as economic uplift and modern education.

Coming back to the topic however, how do we approach revered figures from history and religion in terms of freedom of speech? The rule that should apply to communities and dead leaders alike should be the same as that which is there for slander and libel against living persons, i.e. if you can show probable cause for believing it to be true or indeed to be true, it should constitute legitimate freedom of speech, provided it is not written in a way that incites violence, hatred or arouses sentiments or passions.

The writer is a lawyer. He also blogs at and can be reached at

Source :\04\11\story_11-4-2011_pg3_4

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