Recent controversies surrounding Kamal Haasan’s movie Vishwaroopam or Ashish Nandy’s alleged anti-Dalit comment were reflection of a society which seems to be increasingly becoming a culture of “competitive intolerance”, Union minister Shashi Tharoor has said.
The events over the last week, which also saw writer Salman Rushdie being denied entry into Kolkata “do not speak well of us”, he said.
Emphasising on striking a careful balance in one’s expression so as not to hurt any sentiment and incite violence, Tharoor said the country has not yet reached to a position where freedom of speech should include the right to offend.
“It should, in my view, include the right to say things that might offend some and therefore invite a counter argument and discussion and debate, but not to the point where a government or a judge determine it poses a danger to public order,” he told Karan Thapar on CNN-IBN’s the Devil’s Advocate programme. “The challenge for us as a society is got to be to find the right balance that leans more towards freedom and not towards repression.”
Asked about Nandy’s alleged anti-Dalit remarks, Tharoor, who is the minister of state of HRD, replied there were “legitimate grounds of disagreeing” with what the sociologist had said but calling for arrest, as demanded by some political class, was totally “unnecessary”.
The minister maintained a ban on Haasan’s movie Vishwaroopam should not have been imposed, especially when it was certified by the Censor Board.
Giving an overview of all these issues, Tharoor said the disturbances witnessed during the past week were because “we seem to be increasingly becoming a culture of competitive intolerance”.
“In our society, we cannot encourage people to light a match stick in a petrol pump. We have to judge in each time whether it is indeed a serious match stick or merely a passing spark. Our society is petrol and we cannot let anybody to light a match,” Tharoor observed. When asked for his reaction to politicians not coming out in defence of these individuals, the minister opined that Indian culture was not of the one that could stand up for the “unpopular”.
“Our culture is one that quite frankly does not encourage...Shall we say — people sticking their heads up in defence of the unpopular.”
Though he noted he was not in a position to judge fellow politicians or political leaders, Tharoor said, “I do believe that as a whole we ought to be standing up for the things precious in our society that is our freedom.”
He felt the media, instead of sensationalising such issues, should be responsible in its approach towards serving the society better. Noting that Constitutional provisions on freedom of speech have been misinterpreted at times, he ruled out any amendments as it would then lead to opening up a can of worms.
“You are asking for a very difficult thing to do because that will open up another can of worms. I would rather not fiddle with the fundamental rights we have in our country. Let's instead encourage a kind of culture of this kind of creative interpretation,” he said.
Asked if these episodes have caused embarrassment to us, Tharoor said, “there are many things in all of these cases which do not speak well of us”.
“First of all for the ways in which the objections were voiced, the ways the objections were then dealt with and then ultimate outcome which is silencing people's intellectual creative freedom. That is not good,” he remarked.