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Monday, January 30, 2012


Freedom of speech is high on our minds in India today, with the problem rooted in laws about three fronts: obscenity, defamation and hate speech. While freedom of speech is an essential foundation of democracy, it is closely connected with other dimensions of freedom. Here are some fascinating episodes, in the liberal project of getting to personal freedom.

United States, 1644

Faramerz Dabholwala in the Guardian:

When the Massachusetts settler James Britton fell ill in the winter of 1644, he became gripped by a "fearful horror of conscience" that this was God's punishment on him for his past sins. So he publicly confessed that once, after a night of heavy drinking, he had tried (but failed) to have sex with a young bride, Mary Latham. Though she now lived far away, in Plymouth colony, the magistrates there were alerted. She was found, arrested and brought back, across the icy landscape, to stand trial in Boston. When, despite her denial that they had actually had sex, she was convicted of adultery, she broke down, confessed it was true, "proved very penitent, and had deep apprehension of the foulness of her sin ... and was willing to die in satisfaction to justice". On 21 March, a fortnight after her sentence, she was taken to the public scaffold. Britton was executed alongside her; he, too, "died very penitently". In the shadow of the gallows, Latham addressed the assembled crowds, exhorting other young women to be warned by her example, and again proclaiming her abhorrence and penitence for her terrible crime against God and society. Then she was hanged. She was 18 years old.

India, 2007

Vinod K. Jose in Caravan magazine:

...on the morning the poll was published, an angry mob of about 50 people attacked the Dinakaran office in Madurai, Azhagiri's home base. They threw petrol bombs and set the newsroom on fire; two journalists and a security guard were burned alive.

Pakistan, 2012

Declan Walsh in the New York Times:

One morning last week, television viewers in Pakistan were treated to a darkly comic sight: a posse of middle-class women roaming through a public park in Karachi, on the hunt for dating couples engaged in `immoral' behavior.

Panting breathlessly and trailed by a cameraman, the group of about 15 women chased after - sometimes at jogging pace - girls and boys sitting quietly on benches overlooking the Arabian Sea or strolling under the trees. The women peppered them with questions: What were they doing? Did their parents know? Were they engaged?

Some couples reacted with alarm, and tried to scuttle away. A few gave awkward answers. One couple claimed to be married. The show's host, Maya Khan, 31, demanded to see proof. ``So where is your marriage certificate'' she asked sternly.

India, 2012

Reportage in the Hindustan Times:

Over 50 Shiv Sena activists attacked the The Times of India building at south Mumbai on Saturday and damaged plants and furniture at the reception.

The men, who claimed to be supporters of former Sena MLA Anandrao Adsul, were protesting against a news report that appeared in Maharashtra Times, a Marathi daily. The report speculated that Adsul was on his way to join the Nationalist Congress Party. Adsul, who addressed the media later, has threatened to file a Rs 100-crore defamation suit in addition to a complaint with the State Election Commission and Press Council of India. "Such baseless allegations made without hearing my version won't be accepted," Adsul said. The Sena man was unapologetic about the incident. "My supporters went with a letter, but they were not allowed inside. So they reacted in anger."

India, 2012

Johnson T. A. in the Indian Express:

While she was being beaten up, Suvarna insisted that she would only marry Govindaraju and that it was she who wanted to meet him that day, Govindaraju told the police in a statement last week when he briefly emerged out of hiding. An enraged Davalana, according to the police complaint, directed his relatives to `hang this girl who is insistent on marrying a Madiga'.

Police investigators say they believe Suvarna probably died after the thrashing from her father at her relative's house but her body was dragged to Govindaraju's house and strung up on a rope to make it seem like a suicide in the lover's home.


  1. If it just the turbulent adolescent phase of a young nation discovering itself, then let the guardians be aware of their responsibilities.

  2. errm not sure what utility there is in the 2 narratives idea; 'the past of the west is the present of India'. Wests' rise occurred not in some alternate world.

    1. Seems like India is still waiting for Enlightenment which would put us in the 1800s. On the other hand, India has had a longer history with a much more liberal past than present. Just think of Kamasutra, Khajuraho sculptures, fairly liberal spiritual scripture... all point to the fact that India must have had enlightenment and more. So, its not fair to say that the past of the West is the present of India. Its both funny and sad how the liberal ideas from our own history have been lost and now we have to regain them from the West. Which raises the question: will the West regress like India has regressed over the past few centuries? Were it certain religions (hint) that caused India's regression in the last few centuries and will they be the causes again for the world's regression? And, will the deadweight of the developing economies pull the West down with it or will the West pull the developing economies out as has been the case so far? I think cultural differences are being de-emphasized to a greater extent than they should be. People claim that education solves everything - that is not so. There are a lot of evil well-educated people out there. In fact the non well-educated evil people, one doesn't need to worry about, as they will more often than not have limited impact.


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