Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Debating Free Speech

What are the limits to the Freedom of Speech and Expression?

Subsequent to my earlier column, a complaint was presented via a letter to the editor, that my column, which denounced the “We Shall Overcome” rally for allowing Manohar Parrikar to speak at the public meeting displayed to the world, my “pretentious belief in freedom of speech”. This complaint offered an alternate point of view “I (said that author of the complaint) deplore and condemn the viciously divisive and dangerous ideology of the Right (namely the Hindu fundamentalist groups), but to suppress anyone's right to express himself/herself as a citizen of Goa is doing exactly what the Right have done in similar circumstances when in power. We are not like that!”

To my mind, this argument is facile, but more importantly rests on certain principles of Liberalism, that are deeply flawed and allow for such facile and eventually dangerous assertions.

The principles of Liberalism presume that all citizens are equal. Indeed the letter to the editor says as much, we “cannot suppress anyone's right to express himself/herself as a citizen of Goa”. But this is where the Liberal vision betrays shortcomings. We may ideally like to presume that citizen’s are equal, but the fact is that they are not. There are some citizens who are, whether we like it or not, more powerful than others. This is one of the greatest problems of Liberalism. It fails to recognize the operations of various kinds of power that effectively render one citizen more equal than the other. Failing to recognize this difference in power, then allows us to make the facile argument, that preventing someone to speak at a public meeting is a suppression of the right to speech and expression. The person in question here is the leader of the Opposition! Are we seriously trying to suggest that the Leader of the Opposition, in this case the voluble and slick media-charmer Mr. Manohar Parrikar has a lack of space to express his opinion? A case of suppression of his right to speech would emerge only when the rally at Azad Maidan was in fact, his only way to get his ideas across. In such a case preventing him to speak would have definitely been a violation of this fundamental right. Clearly though this is not the case. On the contrary, in keeping with this noble sentiment of allowing citizens of Goa to speak, the floor could (and should) have been yielded to those who rarely, if ever, get an opportunity to speak. And there were people at Azad Maidan rally, who wished to speak, but were not given opportunity. So much for standing up for the Freedom of Speech.

What if Mr. Parrikar had not been Leader of the Opposition, but an average citizen, bereft of such power? Would we be justified in preventing him to speak at a public meeting like the “We Shall Overcome” rally at Azad Maidan? I would argue we would be based on two criteria. The first would be the extent of our right to expression, and the second would be context.

What is the limit of our right to expression? Can we allow for hate speech and what my critic acknowledges is Mr. Parrikar’s “viciously divisive and dangerous ideology” under the guise of Right to Speech and Expression? I don’t believe that we need to argue the obvious! Clearly hate speech and the deliberate inflaming of communal passions cannot be allowed the respectability that comes from a public platform that “We Shall Overcome” was meant to be.

But this barring of speech is not (and cannot be) a blanket ban on expression. Clearly there must be spaces where even a fascist must be allowed to speak. This is where the second criteria of context comes in. A public meeting like ‘We Shall Overcome’ is of a form which does not allow debate. One cannot respond to the hate speech, condemn it and point out its flaws. This for two reasons. First, such a meeting is one where speakers randomly come up and speak, and there is no systematic exploration of an idea or of an agenda. The hate speech then, can go uncontested and unchallenged. The second reason is the form of the gathering itself. Such rallies (and not just ‘We Shall Overcome’) gather potential mobs. This audience will gather up the stimuli and by nature of the form of the meeting, is actively prevented from reasoning out the stimuli presented to it. Clearly then, if one knows a person to be a fascist, and is aware of her/his divisive intentions, one can prevent him/her from speaking at such a public rally.

The audience at a debating club or a discussion group is an entirely different order. People gather here for the specific reason of encountering ideas, and then evaluating them to the core. To prevent an average citizen who expounds “viciously divisive and dangerous ideology” from speaking at such an audience, would I agree, be a violation of the right to free speech. The problem with fascists however, is that they very rarely enter into such groups and address such audiences. They prefer mass rallies, where they can insert hate into minds, where they can hijack agendas and meetings. Or they prefer private discussions where they are not really open to debate, but are merely bludgeoning you with their ideas.

In conclusion then, one has the right to free speech, when one is following the rules of the game, where respect for the other is present. Talking to a mute(d) audience is not the space for the right to hate speech. In such events, one has the right to block hate speech in contexts where the recipient of the argument is not allowed to pause, reflect and talk back. This is why context is so important when we discuss and debate rights. To not give the audience this right is in fact to participate in an assault on their rights (to speech, expression and multiple others).

(Published in the Gomantak Times 29 October 2008)

[For those who follow the blog, you would know that the nameless critic in this column is Dr.Oscar Rebello. I chose to leave him nameless in the column because i believe that Oscar is representative of a larger way of thinking. The issue therefore is not necessarily with Oscar, with who I may continue to have differences, but with a larger issue about the meaning of democracy and the extent of rights.]

Friday, October 24, 2008

Treating suspicious minds

[What follows is a letter to the Editor by Dr. Oscar Rebello, responding to my last column. The letter appeared in the Gomantak Times dt. Oct 25 2008]

I was amused to peruse the chaotic ramblings of Jason Keith Fernandes, a writer I otherwise admire regarding our role in the protest rally organised in support of Aires-Prajal in Panaji recently.

While frothing at the mouth, about permitting Manohar Parrikar to speak on the day (as did so many other politicians), he betrays his own pretentious belief in freedom of speech.

I deplore and condemn the viciously divisive and dangerous ideology of the Right, but to suppress anyone's right to express himself/herself as a citizen of Goa is doing exactly what the Right have done in similar circumstances when in power. We are not like that!

Also, a brutal assault on two social activists is not about brownie points being scored or political statements being managed. It is about society cutting across divides to condemn a cowardly act.

Tommorrow, it could be Jason or me at the receiving end and I hope someone, at least write a decent obit about us.

As for unmasking ourselves, we the alleged masked activists are open, frank and pretty much upfront about our positions. The only thing we will never do is to sell our soul as much as they net may convince you.

There is a medical condition called paranoid schizophrenia where everyone is suspicious of everyone else. (Must confess that even I am afflicted sometimes). But the faster we treat this the better our chances of hopefully saving Goa.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Unmasking Legality

The people’s movement needs to stress legitimacy and not legality

The two public meetings that were held, one in the T. B. Cunha Hall, and the second in the Azad Maidan, to protest the attacks on Aires Rodrigues and Prajal Sakhardande, were a scam. They were a scam, because what we saw was the hijack of the genuine frustrations and anger of the people to meet rather dubious political ends. Through these meetings a situation was created where it looked like the voices of the people were being heard, but in fact there was no real attempt to convert the voices of these angry people, into a genuine agenda for change. The event remained at the level of drama alone. A tradition, of being apolitical, that the organizers of the meeting had espoused as leaders of the GBA, was thrown to the winds. Politicians of various hues, including shockingly, Manohar Parrikar of saffron fame, came up onto the stage and used the platform to draw mileage and divert our attention from the real issues of our day.

This column will not dwell on the meetings though. It will not do so, because in the hall of mirrors that is the scene of Goan politics, this accusation of scam-ing the people can be laughed away as delusional. Instead, I would like to inaugurate with this column, a series of reflections on law and the relationship to the events that are unfolding in Goa. Reflections built on the more solid bases of definite statements and suggestions made in the public sphere.

In the course of his oration, the good Dr. Rebello suggested that as activists we should stick to only to legal courses of action. Our only courses of action should be those within the ambit of the law. Perhaps he was thinking of the actions against Aires and Prajal and speaking thus. Taking the good doctor’s advice however, would push us into a very prickly situation; and it is my recommendation that his advice be disregarded and rethought.

Dr. Oscar’s ‘legal’ suggestion, would present to us a situation where there are two options, the legal and the illegal. In a situation where the people of Goa are protesting the very operation of the law and the action of the law enforcers, pushing ourselves into this corner will kill our movement. What Dr. Oscar should have recommended is that our politics and actions be legitimate. A politics of legitimacy allows for activists actions that could be legal. However, when the law itself is perverted, a politics of legitimacy would allow for actions that may contravene the presently existing illegitimate law to create a new law that anticipates a legitimate legal framework.

If we listen to Dr. Oscar we would have to necessarily condemn the recent actions of the mining activists in Quepem who blocked the roads to the mines that are destroying their (and Goa’s) access to fresh water, creating the basis for a water crisis in Goa. People have a right to protest, but they don’t have a legal right to block roads. And yet, before protesting, these activists moved from pillar to post to draw attention to the legal irregularities around these mines; and the very real situation of destruction of livelihoods, if the mining was allowed (through a perverted understanding and manipulation) of the law. The law failed to respond. In face of this silent State complicit in human rights violations against the people, these activists took up a possibly illegal, but definitely legitimate route of protest against the mining activity.

Following the Hindu right-wing initiated and BJP supported bandh however, there are questions in the minds of a number of citizens, if we should allow for bandhs at all. ‘The forcible obstruction of my daily life is illegal’ they say, and there are voices now, calling for a ban on bandhs. The recourse to law however, by these concerned citizens is misplaced. It is misplaced, because in the nightmare that is becoming the Indian Republic, such laws that we imagine will prevent the rightist goons from obstructing our lives, will in fact be used against activists like those in Quepem, and people like us when we obstruct the illegitimate actions of the State.

In fact Manohar Parrikar, the arch sponsor of the bandh, would most definitely support our call for a ban on bandhs. He knows that when in power, it would give him greater power to suppress our voices.

The answer to our conundrum lies once more in the politics of legitimacy. Was the bandh called by the Hindu right-wing legitimate? No! The desecration of temples is obnoxious. It should not be allowed to continue. But there is a strange pattern to these desecrations here, and the BJP is clearly exulting in the continuation of these acts of vandalism. It is using these actions to create more trouble. They seem to gain more from these actions than any other group. The bandh on Monday was illegitimate, because it was used not to protest the desecrations, but to show to all of us who exactly is in power in Goa; the Hindu right wing and its goons. It was used to create a situation, where they can dictate their ridiculous agendas and make all of us toe their lines. Get in a ban on bandhs, and tomorrow these right-wing goons will still violate the law and get away with it. For example, known trouble makers in Margao were arrested a day before the bandh and let off on bail! Bail? They could have been held, as per law within the Station for another day, to ensure that they don’t create more trouble. Should the people’s movements call a bandh however, we would be shown the law that prohibits bandhs.

The protests, and future bandhs of the people’s movement in Goa are being, and will be called to draw attention of the State to the manner in which the common person in Goa is being suffocated out of existence. These are very real demands that the State, politician and the law are not addressing, and these are cries for help. The desecrations of temples are acts of cowards, who like the goons who attacked Aires, attack in the night. The acts of the politico-business class are the acts of those who know they have the backing of the law behind them, and they act in broad daylight, disemboweling our earth; raising towers that touch the sky. For those who use the law in this manner, we need to employ not only legal actions, but actions based on a politics of legitimacy. The politics of legitimacy is a politics of life, and a bandh springing from such a politics, will be fundamentally different from the bandh we saw on Monday. It would be a bandh that would not be enforced by fear and threats as was Monday’s bandh, but a bandh enforced by solidarity that people would voluntarily show.

The Goan scenario is one that is crying for change. The call for total transformation of the way the State operates is a very real demand for change. This demand, the dominant caste groups, business interests and landed interests that have infiltrated the movement are deliberately blocking. These groups seek to occupy a platform lead it away from the egalitarian paradise we wish to create, into one more cul-de-sac where they can profit from our misery. These groups use masks, of faces we trust. What we need to do is ask ourselves, what is it that these masks ask us to do?

(Published in the Gomantak Times 22nd October 2008)

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Putting Attacks in Perspective

The larger socio-political environment allows for assaults on activists

How does one respond to the brutal assault on Aires Rodrigues and Prajal Sakhardande? Like most of you, I too am terribly shaken and agitated by the mere fact of the enormity of the attack. Like many of you, for me too, Goa is really my shell in the face of the dance of death that plays out daily in the rest of India. It turns out though, that this dance of death not only stalks our threshold, it has entered into our very sanctum. Now that we recognize this fact though, perhaps things will change; and indeed they must. Things can’t go on like this any more, and indeed, this one incident should necessarily mark the high point of the tolerance of Goan society. No more!

What does not need to be emphasized about this assault is that it was the attack of cowards. Not only were those who executed the attack masked, but these masked bandits were in effect the mask for the puppet-master who chose not to reveal himself. Is it too much to ask for that you come out in the open and deal a few blows, if that is all you are capable off?

This act of violence must necessarily be seen as the act of not just a coward but by forces that are now well and truly at their wits end. The violent response is the response of those who have no other response to offer. This is therefore to be interpreted by the Goan upheaval as a sign of the coming victory. The end must surely be near and all it requires is one, long and hard concerted push.

But rhetoric aside, the attack of Aires and Prajal should be seen in context. The context is one where those who have been speaking out against the injustices perpetrated in the guise of development, have been systematically targeted and harassed by the forces of the politico-economic elite. We should think back a few months, when Manohar Parrikar had the audacity to brand Seby Rodrigues a Naxalite. Parrikar got away with his criminally irresponsible statements and no action was prosecuted against him. In more recent times activists from Benaulim have been targeted by the police. Some were summoned to the police station to be threatened, for others the police went to their work place to defame them there, and on other occasions activists were stopped in Cortalim under the guise of looking for terrorists. A couple of days before the attack on Aires and Prajal, anti-mining activists in Quepem were subjected to verbal and then physical abuse, and then, peacefully protesting activists were arrested and hauled off to jail. The rioters representing the mining group on the other hand received no censure from the police. On the contrary, police officers are reported to have remarked to Cheryl Fernandes, that they would teach her and her aged mother a lesson they would not forget.

It is this socio-political context that provides the backdrop to the murderous attack on Aires and Prajal. It is a context where the various activists in Goa have been branded trouble-makers by the politico-economic elite and have been offered little sympathy from the State. When the Prudent Media organized a debate around the theme, ‘Are Goans becoming Eco-conscious or Negative’, the negativity they were referring to was the negativity imputed to Goans by the politico-economic elite. At the debate itself, Nilesh Salkar and Nitin Kunkolienkar were the lone voices crying negativity. The politicos there cunningly changed their tune, but their opinion stands firm; the average Goan – who Digambar Kamat allegedly works for, has become negative.

Take this as an illustration of the entrenched view of the political establishment. At a public function in Margao this past Sunday, Mauvin Godinho chose to educate the Goans present there on why they should not be negative. We need development he said. ‘Ofcourse bad development like the SEZs should not be there’, he assured us, ‘but other development?’ Politeness prevented me from asking him what other development he and his class were planning on bringing into Goa. I refrained, afraid as I was of embarrassing him into silence. The Chief Minister sat stoically next to Godinho and chose not to comment on these statements. If Digambar Kamat felt so strongly that the Goan was not negative, a gentle indication of difference of opinion would have made the point. This was not to be however.

The point therefore is that Aires and Prajal were attacked not just because of the decision of one coward, but because the entire politico-economic elite of this State has collaborated to create an environment where it is perfect acceptable to hit the activist. There is clearly a certain breakdown of law and order in this state, since the powers that ought to be committed to upholding democratic norms are themselves flouting it. What is one to do then?

Adv. Jatin Naik in a televised report called for the resignation of Digambar Kamat, because of the breakdown of law and order in the State. This may be a good idea, since what Kamat is doing is merely providing lip-service to the angry cries of Goans that resound through this state. There is really no action that is forthcoming from him as he merely hides behind the veil of the law and pleads inability. This resignation should however be a reason for Manohar Parrikar to step into the seat of power. This will only spell doom for the movement in Goa. Would President’s rule serve the purpose? Perhaps it would? Perhaps it would allow us to make our stance extremely clear. That we have had enough of this system of politics and we demand that power be effectively delegated to the grass-roots. Our MLAs are so addicted to power (and the money it brings) that they refuse to give it up. On the contrary they mock our intelligence when they tell us that they were elected for 5 years because they were credited by the people with the intelligence to decide what was best for the people. Yes, President’s rule while we rearticulate the locations of power in our state may in fact be a good idea.

In the meanwhile though, the attack against Aires and Prajal should not be used as a reason to give untrammeled powers to the police. What we need is an inquiry and a revelation of the person who actually paid for the attack. This is what will bring justice to this particular situation. It’s the big fish we are after, not the small fry. In the meanwhile, I would use this column to appeal to every Goan to join in the protests that will be organized over the next two days. Join in, or organize one in your own neighbourhood. Act NOW, or forever hold your peace.

(Published in the Gomantak Times 15 October 2008)

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

When Stories don’t run to script

Reflections following Prudent Media’s Mahasangram

“Not everything is entirely predictable”. Sage words from my friend Cecil Pinto, reflecting on the outcome of the Prudent Media organized ‘debate’ on whether Goans were becoming Eco-conscious or negative.

Whether the debate had been framed to lend legitimacy to the feeling from business and political elites that Goans are in fact opposing everything is still open…for debate. On the matter of the debate itself, the tragedy is that there was not much of a debate. From (L)eft to (R)ight, all the panelists said the same thing and the point was underscored a good many times through the course of the debate; the political system reliant on MLAs lacks accountability, they have been milking the state and the law for their own benefit and the people have had enough. They are angry, they refuse to sit quietly any more, and to use the words of Dr. Oscar Rebello, Goa is actually in the midst of a “low intensity civil war”. The anger of the people was more than evident at the ‘debate’ and were it another setting, I’d wager my name, that there would have been a few individuals at the debate who would have gotten roughed up. There really was no debate, since the idea of a Goan ‘negativity’ wasn’t seriously even articulated. Nitin Kunkolienkar from the GCCI, and Nilesh Salkar from the builder’s lobby, did try to raise some sort of issue, but it was clear that they were clearly out of their depth. They were speaking of law, when the people have clearly given up on the law. The good doctor had then to intervene and explain to the Suits; what was the point harping on law, when following a law, was clearly going to only earn them the ire of the people?

What one has to credit Kunkolienkar and Salkar for though, is that they stuck to the positions that they held and believe in. The politicos on the other hand, did the usual turncoat act. The view that they hold in private, in their meetings chambers, and when consorting with business, that the Goans are in fact being negative, were swiftly abandoned. On this front, Parrikar was brilliant as usual. If you heard him go, you would have joined a mob to acclaim him First President of the Peoples’ Republic of Goa! But of course it’s just an act. I’ll stress a point I have made a few times before. Had Parrikar been occupying the seat that Digambar now holds, all of us activists would have probably been thrown in jail on a variety of counts, not least among them being the accusation that we were terrorists.

If the politico’s changed the tune of their song, to acknowledge that there was something wrong with the system, then they weren’t able to proceed very far with that act. What the debate also threw up quite clearly was a lack of imagination by the State’s political (and other) elite in response to the clear break-down of the status quo in this state. Take for example the Chief Minister’s response to the criticisms regarding the amendments to Sections 16 and 16 A of the Town and Country Planning Act. ‘We have formulated rules’ he says, ‘that will submit proposed changes to the Plan to public scrutiny’. What is the manner of public scrutiny that he has in mind however? A committee, that is composed of elected representatives of the people, and representatives from NGOs. But isn’t that exactly the situation we have on our hands right now? The same situation we want to get changed? What the people are demanding is transparency and accountability and a larger say in how THEIR land gets dealt with. This sort of process can only come about through a sincere formulation of various types of public hearings. The unfortunate bit is that the powers that be are still not willing to see the changed political circumstance that is staring them in the face. The equation that reduces democracy to a five-yearly (if we are lucky) exercise in electing a legislator is no longer working. A refusal to gracefully make way to a new system will for sure only lead to the kind of escalation of the conflict we are already witness to. Oscar has already publicly read the writing on the wall. Babylon must fall.

The script of the fall of Babylon however, may not quite run as the people’s movements may want it to. Reason being that a good number of these movements are themselves seriously compromised. Right from the GBA to the smallest of village movements, the decision-making bodies are composed of a wide variety of interests. Not all of these interests are similar. In fact very often they diverge widely! On the one hand you have persons representing upper caste and upper class interests; and on the other you have people who are really angry at not having a voice in the manner their livelihoods are being impacted on. The upper caste, class groups are jockeying to change the status-quo only marginally, since the change in the status-quo will allow them to possibly become the new brokers of power if the status-quo changes. If things don’t change, by virtue of being present in a wide variety of civil society initiatives, they would have already achieved the status of being power brokers. Indeed, if we do move toward a total collapse of law and order in this state, then we will really have to lay the blame on these power brokers who fraudulently represent the people, while also blaming the politicos who refuse to relinquish greater power to the panchayats.

(Published in the Gomantak Times 8th October 2008)