On Freedom of Speech and Compulsions of Silence

24. Apr 2008

Stig Toft Madsen April 14, 2008

Scene 1:

In the silent zone compartment of the IC19 Copenhagen-Århus train the rules are simple. All electronic equipment must be switched to silent mode, and conversations must be conducted in other parts of the train. The freedom of speech severely constrained, passengers enjoy a quiet working atmosphere or the chance to sleep as if in their own bed.

Scene 2:

Until recently, I labored under the false impression that Jats had not settled east of the Ganges. But they have, and recently the leader of the Indian Farmers Union, Mahendra Singh Tikait, made a speech to Jats and others in the town of Bijnor located just east of the barrage built across the Ganges connecting Tikait’s home district Muzaffarnagar with the Bijnor area.

Mahendra Singh Tikait is a Jat by caste. The Jats make up about 8% of the population in western Uttar Pradesh, but they nevertheless constitute the “dominant caste” in the Ganges-Jamuna interfluve.[i] In the villages settled by Jats, they typically form a larger section of the population and in such villages they own most of the land. They cultivate the land themselves, but they often also employ labor from the formerly untouchable Jatav caste. The Jatavs comprise a sizable part of the population in Western Uttar Pradesh. Being numerous, they represent an important pool of labor power for land-owning castes such as the Jats.

As reported in 1969 by Owen Lynch from Agra, some Jatavs have prospered in the shoes and leather apparel business. And as noted by Paul Brass from nearby Aligarh, Jatavs have at various points in time entered into political alliance with Muslims against urban upper castes. “Muslim-Jatav bhai-bhai, Hindu quom kaha se aye?” – “Muslims and Jatavs are brothers, where did those Hindus come from anyway?” was an early electioneering slogan. Alliance building has paid off and the state of Uttar Pradesh is now governed by a “rainbow coalition” including both high and low castes headed by Mayawati. By occupation Mayawati is a schoolteacher. By caste she is a Jatav. She stood for elections in Bijnor already in 1985 and has been the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh several times.[ii] A few see her as a future Prime Minister of India.

Jats and Jatavs share language and to some extent culture, but rarely economic interests. Since the 1980s, Tikait has campaigned on behalf of landholding castes against the exploitation of rural India by urban India. His Indian Farmers Union has taken this campaign all across Uttar Pradesh. The Jatavs, on the other hand, are more likely to be concerned about the exploitation of the landless Jatavs by the landed Jats.

At the meeting in Bijnor, Tikait said something which triggered the latent conflict between Jats and Jatavs. Exactly what he said is generally not reported in the newspapers. It is only reported that he said something that cast a casteist slur on Mayawati, on her caste, or on her government. Apparently, Tikait referred to Mayawati not as a Jatav, but by the older name of the caste as a Chamarin (female form of the word Chamar).[iii] One blogger indicates that Tikait called Mayawati’s government “a government of chamars”, chamar sarkar.[iv] When Briggs wrote The Chamars in 1920, the word Chamar was still in common usage.[v] The term refers to chamra, i.e. leather, skin, or hide. The traditional occupation of Chamars was shoemaking, an occupation considered polluting by most Hindus and hence an occupation that many Jatavs now want to distance themselves from. One way of doing so is by insisting on referring to themselves as Jatavs. It is also possible that Tikait used the phrase mochis aspiring to be sonaars, i.e. cobblers aspiring to become goldsmiths. This phrase had become controversial when it was featured in a recent Bombay movie called Aaja Nachle, Come, Let’s dance.[vi] The movie was banned in Uttar Pradesh on the day it was released in November 2007 because of the lines Mohalle mein kaisi maara-mar hai; bole mochi bhi khud ko sunar hai, i.e. “There is chaos in the neighborhood, even the Mochi (Cobbler) calls himself a Sunar (Goldsmith)”.[vii] The protests in Uttar Pradesh and elsewhere forced the producers to remove the controversial line from the film.

When Tikait refused to apologize for whatever he said, Mayawati ordered his arrest. Tikait lives in a large village dominated by Jats of the Balyan clan. Tikait is the hereditary headman of this clan. To assert his honour and that of his village, Tikait vowed to resist arrest, whereupon Mayawati ordered sizable contingents of Provincial Armed Constabulary and the Rapid Action Force to the village. In preparation for a police raid, the villagers collected bricks on the rooftops to use as missiles. In Delhi and Lucknow political parties critical of Mayawati issued statements in favour of Tikait. However, in order to avoid bloodshed, Tikait bowed to pressure and apologized for having used derogatory language even though at he had earlier held that “This type of language we generally use in this belt”, and that he did not “know he was indulging in any illegality”.[viii] Tikait was arrested on April 2 and booked under an act dealing with crimes against the ex-untouchables, but immediately released on bail.[ix]

Salman Rushdie is quoted for having said that freedom of speech allows criticism of ideas and ideologies (including religious ideas and ideologies), but not a similar freedom to criticize persons. Tikait probably did pass an insult on Mayawati and the Jatavs and that may be why he “had to” retract his statement. However, Mayawati is known to have been as foul-mouthed as Tikait. Her Wikipdeia entry states: “She was noted for her colourful and aggressive language – though she denied some of the more offensive slogans like tilak tarajo aur talwaar, inko maro joote char (the signs of the upper castes, let’s beat them down with our shoes).”[x]

Scene 3:

Since 2006, Cultural Studies A/S from Oslo has offered a course on Peace and Conflict Studies in Pondicherry in South India. While teaching this course in September 2006, I arranged a trip for the students to visit the well-known newspaper group in Chennai publishing The Hindu, Frontline and other esteemed publications. The highlight of our visit was a tête-à-tête with N. Ram, the editor-in-chief. The students – mostly young Norwegians – were keen to know how Indian news media report on conflicts and violence. The Hindu, we were told, eschews graphic pictures and detailed description of violence. When Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was killed by emissaries of the Tamil Tigers near Madras, The Hindu did carry the ghastly pictures from the scene of carnage. “I regret that. We would not have done so today. The readers do not like and we do not like it”, was the message that N. Ram conveyed to us. “If I were to
chose, I would not even have brought a photo of the murder of Mahatma Gandhi on the front page”, he argued. I retorted that the Danish newspapers probably did exactly that. “The news has to come out”, seemed to be the prevailing notion among the visitors from the Nordic countries. “Precaution has to be exercised so as not to arouse passion”, N. Ram countered.

Underlying this view is the presumption (or the experience) that in India passions are easily aroused. Because the populace is given to mob frenzy, the politicians or the riot specialists or anyone else with sufficient power and oratory skills can rely on the crowd (or the opponent’s crowd) to be triggered by a suitable stimulus. Tribal passions, religious passion and nationalist passions are so volatile that responsible news media have to take special care not to stoke the permanently smouldering embers.

The crux of the matter is whether to trust the capability of a citizenry to form its own independent opinion on an issue in a peaceful manner, or whether to downplay news and views in order to forestall rude or violent reactions.

To be sure, The Hindu does feature photos that show violence. For example, it carried a photo of a car set ablaze by rioters captioned (if I remember correctly) “Hippies go berserk in Copenhagen”. The sentence finely captured the Viking heritage of the Danes – going berserk being a Viking thing – thereby creating a link between an act of individuals and a violent cultural heritage. Incidentally, the photo was taken in the Torvegade-Prinsessegade area, a riot-prone spot close to where I live.

Scene 4:

I live on the nearby Wilders Plads named, I presume, after one of the Dutchmen who built Christianshavn from the 17th century onwards. Geert Wilders is the name of the Dutch right-wing MP who recently released Fitna, a short film highly critical of Islam. The film firmly roots acts of violence committed by contemporary Islamists in the Koran and subsequently transmitted across the centuries by the faithful. In that sense, the film falls in the enlightenment tradition of criticizing religions, their priesthoods and the devout for their considerable contribution to human misery, a form of criticism that the rise of Islamic fundamentalism has reinvigorated.[xi]

When the debate about Islam started in Denmark, it was common to warn Danes not to sink to the level of their opponents as this would constitute a virtual defeat. In a sense, Wilders has done just that. A large part of his film consists of Islamist propaganda material ranging from fiery preaching to gory beheadings. The response of one Muslim commentator to the film was that it was not so bad because, after all, it mostly reused Islamist footage.

In terms of visual techniques and aesthetics, Islamist propaganda derives a major portion of its inspiration from 20th century Western propaganda, but several of its tropes – including the triumphant (or routine) exhibition of the newly severed head of the opponent – are much older.[xii] Wilders’ film aims and claims to make a statement against Islamist violence, but in so doing diffuses its memes further into the collective consciousness and unconsciousness.

Fitna is not directed against any person in particular, not even against Osama bin Laden. It lashes out at a set of ideas calling the bluff on the position that violence in the name of Islam is unrelated to Islam. As per Salman Rushdie’s dictum, such criticism is “halal“. However, as per N. Ram’s dictum, it is “haram” or better to be avoided, because it is apt to arouse passion. Indeed, the Danish radio and television broadcasting network DR chose not to screen Fitna, probably fearing a possible backlash. DR did announce the url by which to retrieve the film, but it must be said to have relaxed its position on freedom of expression.

Scene 5:

Democracy is enjoying what may be its fifth wave in South Asia. Pakistan held democratic elections in February, Bhutan has completed what looks like its first real elections, and now Nepal held an election to a new Constituent Assembly on April 10th. This Constituent Assembly is likely to abolish monarchy forthwith.

Together with the King of Thailand, the King of Nepal used to be protected against insult and blasphemy by a law of lèse majesté. In Thailand, the law protects the monarch against any accusation, whether true or false. This form of privileged legal protection now seems to be on its way out of history. But while royalty increasingly has to bear the brunt of criticism, some castes and religious communities hope to create an order in which criticism or witticism directed against them become more difficult to voice.

Scene 6:

The train is approaching Århus. Silence reigns supreme while scribbled, typed and printed words deposited on paper or in computer memory accumulate. Through the window, the landscape speaks volumes about the secret of spring soon to be unfolded. The papers carry the news of the Finnish Minister of Foreign Affairs Ilkkan Kanerva who resigned after having sent some 200 SMSs to a 29-year old model and show-dancer called Johanna Tukiainen, whom he had met on a plane to Lapland. Tukiainen sold her phone to a yellow paper called Hymy, meaning Smile. This paper subsequently published some of the SMSs in spite of Kanerva’s attempts to silence it through a court case.[xiii]

Young men reportedly think about sex every few seconds. Older men also fantasize about sex and some talk about it, too. But a minister should exercise self-restraint and not send SMSs about sex to others, not even to a stripper. A minister, in fact, should enjoy less freedom of certain kinds of speech than others enjoy. The compulsion of silence extends into the world of sports. The Norwegians who are going to the Olympics in China are not supposed to state political opinions unless directly asked, perhaps so as not to arouse the wrath of the Chinese dragon, whether statal or popular.[xiv]


A triple movement seems to be taking place across the globe. Perhaps, it may be conceptualized in terms borrowed from Indian anthropology: Brahminization, Rajputization and Westernization.

Rajputization here could mean that the real or presumed underdogs in their rise to power verbally or physically threaten their erstwhile superiors to accord to them due respect and an acknowledgement of their rising status. Exercising the privilege of the underprivileged, the weapons of the weak home in on the fortresses of the strong.

Brahminization here could mean that the former ruling elites in their attempts to hold on to power impose upon themselves especially high standards of moral conduct making their life (and ipso facto the life of others) more difficult and constrained in order to sustain their aura of superiority. Counting on Bourdieu, they hope “distinction” will do the trick.[xv]

Rajputization and Brahminization challenge notions of universalism embodied in e.g. the right to free speech. Together, Rajputization and Brahminization hollow the crown of free speech, rendering Westernization a barely encompassing husk culture.

(With thanks to Anja Møller Rasmussen, Kenneth Nielsen, Vinayak Sathe and DSB)

[i] “A caste may be said to be “dominant” when it preponderates economically over the other castes, and when it also wields preponderant economic and political power. A large and powerful caste group can be more easily dominant if its position in the local caste hierarchy is not too low” – and when it also enjoys access to Western education; Srinivas, M.N. 1959 “The Dominant Caste in Rampura”, American Anthropologist, 61, 1:1-16; see also Jeffrey, Craig, Patricia Jeffery and Roger Jeffery 2008 Degrees without Freedom? Education, Masculinities and Unemployment in North India, Stanford University Press, p. 41. [ii] About Mayawati’s careeer it has been written: “The Bahujana Samaj Party first made headway in Punjab, Kanshi Ram’s home State, but his primary political task was to wean the Chamars of Uttar Pradesh from Congress. It was Kanshi Ram’s fortune that he built the party at the historical moment that the long-term Congress decline became a landslide. The formal entry of his party into Uttar Pradesh was in a by-election in 1985 for the Lok Sabha seat of Bijinor, in which its candidate was Mayawati. She is a Jatav (or Chamar), the daughter of a minor government official in Delhi, and had completed a BA and LLB from the University of Delhi. Mayawati had made contact with Kanshi Ram in 1977 while she was a student, and had gradually been drawn into his organisation. Her opponents in Bijinor included Ram Vilas Paswan – the two have had poor relations since this contest – and Meira Kumar, Jagjivan Ram’s daughter, representing Congress.” Anonymous, “Untouchable politics and politicians since 1956. Kanshi Ram: from BAMCEF to the Bahujana Samaj Party”, assessed at www.ambedkar.org/books/tu5.htm[iii] Chakraborty, Tapas “Maya on Sanjay Gandhi track to tame Tikait”, The Telegraph, April 3, 2008, http://www.telegraphindia.com/1080403/jsp/nation/story_9089923.jsp[iv] http://sujaiblog.blogspot.com/2008/03/indian-curbs-freedom-of-expression-iii.html.[v] Briggs, Geo.W. 1920 The Chamars, Calcutta, Oxford University Press.

[vi] Seema Chishti “Empowered by another name”, Indian Express, April 13, 2008, http://www.indianexpress.com/story/292191.html and Shobhaa De, Aaja Nachle, Times of India, 23 December 2007, http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/Aaja_Nachle/articleshow/2644077.cms

[vii] Aaja Nachle, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aaja_Nachle

[viii] “Clashes as UP CM sends police to catch Tikait”, Indian Express, posted April 1, 2008.

[ix] “Mayawati slams Opposition parties for backing Tikait”, The Hindu. April 3, 2008; Tikait refuses to surrender as security forces surround village, supporters gear up for battle”, The Indian Express, online April 2, 2008.

[x] Mayawati Kumari at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mayawati

[xi] The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins (2006) and Sam Harris’ The End of Faith from 2004 are major examples of contemporary criticism of religion.

[xii] Parfrey, Adam 2001 Extreme Islam. Anti-American Propaganda of Muslim Fundamentalism, Los Angeles, Feral House for contemporary propaganda; Peters, Rudolph 2004 Jihad i klassisk og moderne islam, København, Forlaget Vandkunsten for the trope of jihad.


Heine, Thomas “Erotiske sms’er fælder udenrigsminister”, Morgenavisen Jyllands-Posten April 2, 2008, p. 10; Voss, Nicola “Magtens mænd med bukserne nede”, BT, April 3, 2008, p. 26.

[xiv] “Dette kan de snakke om” , Aftenposten, April 17, 2008, http://www.aftenposten.no/nyheter/sport/ol/article2373300.ece

[xv] On distinction, see e.g. http://www.pressure.to/legacy/anxious_practice/texts/distinction.htm