By Joseph D’Souza
Having traveled to the United States for decades, I have watched with dismay as public discourse has become more polarized. But I’m also noticing a resemblance to what’s happening in my own country, India.
Of particular concern is the trend of reputed liberal universities and news organizations attacking freedom of speech, shutting out the space for diverse thought, especially from conservative thinkers and Christians. In some instances, mere opposition to opinion or embrace of a traditional view on marriage is being framed as hate speech.
Even more alarming, it seems no one knows the rules on what it is or isn’t appropriate to say. The recent back-to-back faux pas from TV anchor Megyn Kelly and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton serve as a timely example.
Kelly, who arrived at NBC last year, was booted from Megyn Kelly Today after suggesting that wearing blackface for Halloween might not be wrong if done to honor the person the costume is based on. However sincere, Kelly obviously made a mistake given the racist history behind blackface, and though she apologized for it the next day, NBC decided to fire her. Flash forward a few days later, Hillary Clinton quipped, “ they all look alike,” in an interview when the reporter confused Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., with former Attorney General Eric Holder, who are both black. Clinton’s zinger went virtually unmentioned in liberal media outlets — including NBC. So far, she has yet to offer an apology.
Freedom of expression — as delineated in the First Amendment — didn’t materialize out of thin air. It is the product of a Judeo-Christian culture that paved the way for it. Despite Christianity’s historical preponderance in America, there’s no question other religions are free to practice and propagate their faith.
And religious freedom is rare in the rest of the world — something most Americans may not appreciate. An American-Iraqi Muslim woman who founded an influential civil rights organization to advance multifaith understanding recently explained for me and others how her Iraqi friends back in the old country could hardly believe that she was free to practice and propagate her faith and wear the headscarf wherever she goes in America.
America cannot forget that the First Amendment is one of the primary reasons why people from all over the world flock to its shores every year. Those of us who live overseas wish immigrants who enjoy this freedom would speak up for for its virtues, spreading the message of freedom of speech and religion back to their home countries.
Though we are an ocean and a continent apart, the history of free speech in India is not unlike America’s. India’s constitutional democracy rose out of the pluralistic Hindu culture present in the subcontinent. Hindu intellectualism, which embraces the multiplicity of ideas, in many ways paved the way for the Indian Constitution. Indeed, it was a Dalit, the Columbia-educated B.R. Ambedkar, who drafted the constitution. At the time, it was unthinkable that a Dalit — or “untouchable” — would play such a role in the creation of the Indian state. And though India still has a long way to go to eradicate caste prejudice, Ambedkar’s participation was a watershed moment in Dalit history as it led to the ban on untouchability.
The freedoms enshrined in the constitution unleashed the Indian revolution in science and technology. From this revolution emerged global leaders, such Sundar Pichai and Satya Nadella, CEOs of Google and Microsoft respectively, and Amartya Sen, winner of the Nobel Prize for economics. As an Indian Christian, I am proud of the Hindu culture and our constitution, which has provided the space for intellectual discourse.
Yet, as it’s happening in America, freedom of speech is coming under attack in India as well.
In recent years, India has become captive to an extreme, right-wing ideology that does not tolerate intellectual freedom, or for that matter religious liberty. Universities and news studios have turned into platforms for vilification rather than for robust discourse on social issues. If an author, journalist, poet, or even a painter challenge a particular religion or intellectual paradigm, the right wing conjures a mob — both on social media and on the streets — or orchestrates a squad to troll, disrupt, intimidate, and attack the speaker. This is how many intellectual voices have been silenced, including the outspoken journalist Gauri Lankesh, who was murdered last year.
The author Kancha Ilaiah is the latest intellectual to become a target. His magnum opus God as Political Philosopher, on the thought of Buddha, and his books Post-Hindu India and Why I am not a Hindu, which discuss the socio-economic inequalities in the caste system, are considered modern, indigenous literary classics. They are recommended reading and textbooks for master’s programs in institutions from Delhi University to Cambridge, Columbia, and Stanford. Yet, recently, an academic committee proposed banning his books from graduate political science courses at Delhi University because they are “ controversial” and “ insulting to Hinduism.”
The committee went as far as to suggest removing the word “Dalit” from academic use. Earlier this year the government sent a notice to media organizations also asking them not to use the term and ordered its state and central departments to avoid using it in official documents.
This is nothing less than an attempt to invalidate the history and identity of India’s most oppressed people. “Dalit,” which means broken, is a self-given name by the untouchables. It’s a source of pride and a rallying cry for their cause. To eliminate it would be like banning the word “black” in America.
If Mahatma Gandhi were alive today, he would not have supported the present curtailment of speech in India. He would have engaged in a written conversation with those who differed in opinion, as he did with Ambedkar, who fiercely disagreed with him on his views of caste and Hinduism. Freedom of expression is our first liberty. If we lose it, we lose all our other freedoms.
[Most Rev. Joseph D’Souza is archbishop of the Anglican Good Shepherd Church of India. He serves as the president of the All India Christian Council and is the founder of Dignity Freedom Network, which delivers humanitarian aid to the marginalized and outcasts of South Asia.]
(Courtesy: Washington Examiner)