A Requiem For Galileo

Ashis Nandy’s recent controversy reminds us why we should prosecute an action, not words. Punish murderers, not ideas.

ByAnand Ranganathan
A Requiem For Galileo
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It wasn’t maman who died today. It was democracy. She was only 67 years old.

Carrying her dead body through the quiet and somber Tilak Marg were the burly pallbearers, the keepers of the nation’s conscience. Mysteriously absent were the crowds who normally scream “Azadi! Azadi!” at the mere site of a funeral procession. And all those opinion-makers and columnists who’ve hoisted Rushdie joyfully on their shoulders as though he were a Free Speech Cup – where were they? Yes, they watched it all slide past silently, and only when the procession went down Purana Quila – en route to Nigambodh Ghat for the final rites – did they shake their heads in protest. Not one murmur, mind, only a dismal shake of the head.

The exact time of death isn’t clear, but it happened during the hearing of Ashis Nandy’s petition to the Supreme Court seeking protection from arrest by various police forces of the country. The hearing concerned the remarks Nandy had made during the recently concluded Jaipur Literature Festival.

When Nandy’s counsel, Aman Lekhi, asked the three-judge bench headed by Chief Justice Kabir: “A person cannot be faulted because he or she conveys a certain idea…Can you penalise an idea?”, Justice Kabir replied angrily: “Yes, why not?…An idea can be punished”. (Economic Times; The Telegraph, Hindustan Times, February 2, 2013)

Quoting the date is important, as the tombstone-maker knows only the birth date: August 15, 1947.

The greatest Indian after Gandhi, Ambedkar, formulated the following as one of the unshakeable tenets of our Constitution:

Article 19. (1) All citizens shall have the right –

(a) to freedom of speech and expression

Ambedkar was a genius. That he understood the painful and stark realities of India more than even Gandhi – and certainly more than the lovable and emotional Nehru – is not something that we as Indians are aware of.

When people refuse to follow the principles by which their leader lived and died, ever so slowly the leader becomes the present, and his principles the past. To worship someone is actually to forget him. We worship Ambedkar – at roundabouts, in naming Bhavans and Sadans, for sanctioning holidays – but we have forgotten utterly what the man stood for.

Ambedkar knew everything about how this nation functioned, and many of his speeches are so explosive and clairvoyant and perceptive – of the way this nation functions even today – that one is astonished by the sheer acuity of the man. That is the reason why Article 19 1a was just that: Article 19 1a.

In 1951, however, came quickly the first amendment to our Constitution, and what was merely Article 19 1a now got appended with “clause 2”, i.e. the freedom of speech and expression was now subject to “reasonable restrictions” that, among other things, were “public order” and “decency” and “morality”.

How can freedom be subject to anything?! Well, it can be subject to something but then it no longer is freedom!

Clause 2 – mark my words – is what will sound the death-knell for freedom in this nation of ours. It is because of clause 2 that Rushdie was hounded out of Jaipur, Swamy was ejected from Harvard, Nasreen was chased from Kolkata, Hussain was dismounted from his horses, and clause 2 it is that has made Nandy a fugitive in his own country.

True: my right to swing my fist ends where your nose begins, yes, but for the love of over-paid writers and TV-psychologists, we are talking here in metaphors.

Prosecute an action, not words! Punish murderers, not ideas!

What our leaders say today is but the final joss-stick that we’ve lit under the garlanded duo-toned photo-frame of Ambedkar. How he cries through those thick glasses! His idea of India lies smashed to smithereens.

But how many ideas will we squash? Will we also put behind bars Mahasweta Devi because she demanded that the right to dream be made a fundamental right? Will we punish physicists because they think God does not exist? Will we throw biologists to the ghariyals because they believe man descended from ape?

How many Galileos will we put to the gallows, how many?

Are we going to imprison those millions of Naga Sadhus whose dangling penises we may find an affront to our “decency”? Are we going to blast those temples of Khajuraho whose walls may assault our sense of “morality”? Are we going to forbid one of the greatest and most beautiful ideas ever to have struck man, an idea whose depiction is as spine-chilling as it is natural: that of the creative and cosmic energy of man bursting through the creative and cosmic energy of a woman: the union of lingam and yoni: Shiva-shakti – are we going to forbid its open display of magnificence as it may upset “public order”?

That fine lady who stands atop our temples of justice is tired of our self-righteousness and her sword that is pointing to the skies is blunted and her blindfold is perforated and her scales are rusted, and she is crying hearing someone say that ideas can be punished.

Save her yet from toppling over! Take note of what the other Kabir said half a millennium ago:

हद में चले सो मानव, बेहद चले सो साध |

हद बेहद दोनों तजे, ताको बता अगाध ||

The one who is confined in limitations is human, the one who roams into unlimited, a Sadhu. The one who has dropped both limited and unlimited, unfathomable is his being and understanding

Dear Editor of this article: please don’t edit this piece; refrain from adding or removing even a single punctuation. I take complete responsibility for every word, every sentence that I have thus written. I will face the consequences of my thoughts and my ideas and my writings, in whatever manner they may come.

My ideas are dear to me. They are all I have, they are my sum total. Rest assured that unlike Norman Mailer who substituted Fug for Fuck, unlike Arundhati Roy who paid the Rs 2500 fine to escape a jail sentence, unlike Tavleen Singh who apologized and removed her piece from the Indian Express site – rest assured you’ll find me waiting, waiting for the armies of the night and their midnight knock.


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