Mice struggle for free speech against Big Dogs & Cats: Historian Timothy Ash

Jaipur, Jan 21 (IANS) British historian, author and commentator Timothy Garton Ash is regarded among the best in the field and in a session on free speech here at the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) contented that is the future depends on India.

For that to come true, he said, the terrible legacy of the Raj, the sedition law, must be re-looked at.

In conversation with Salil Tripathi, the chair of the writers-in-prison committee of PEN International, by drawing on his acclaimed new book “Free Speech: Ten Principles for a Connected World,” Ash argued that India is a “swing state” for the future of global free speech.

How should we deal with hate speech? How should we respond to the giant American internet platforms? What about religion? And Edward Snowden? On answers to all these questions and more, India can have a decisive impact, he said.

“Free speech is the oxygen of all freedoms. It is the freedom that makes all other freedoms possible. All over the world a ‘game of thrones’ is going on as to who will control, have a say over our free speech. The big dogs and cats are competing against each other but more dangerous is the coming together of the two,” he said.

Garton termed the establishments of powerful countries like the US, the UK, Russia, China and India among others, the Big Dogs. They have made repeated attempts to suppress the free speech of their Mice,” the common people.

Whether through “the rubber paragraph” of limited restrictions that can be stretched as per the will of the government or through several censors imposed directly or indirectly on the Mice, there has always been a fear of free speech being curtailed, explained Ash.

And then, not to forget are the Big Cats, the big-time internet players like Facebook and Google, who store excess information of citizens. They are fast turning into a parallel world, the reputed panelist noted.

“If Facebook was to become a country, it would be the largest in the world. Imagine Google, even larger. They probably have more information about you than perhaps your government,” he guessed.

Drawing on a lifetime of writing about dictatorships and dissidents, Ash argued that in this connected world that he called a cosmopolis, the way to combine freedom and diversity is more, but also better, free speech.

“Across all cultural divides, we must strive to agree on how we disagree,” he said.

So how does the role of India fit into all of this? How can India be a global leader in this aspect, or rather, what lessons can India offer to the rest of the world?

“India’s role is very crucial not just because it is large, super powerful, a vibrant democracy but also because inside India this struggle has already been going on. Like nowhere else in the world, people in india have a deep sense of belief in free speech. It is not a new factor in India.”

“Added to it is a liberal constitution and a vibrant press. So I think all the struggles for free speech is already going on in India,” he contended.Moderator Tripathi reminded him of several instances in the recent past when there have been attempts to throttle freedom of speech and the right to dissent in India.

Ash replied: “In the last few years, I think India has been moving in the wrong direction. Indirect control of the media and the spinning of the stories are prevalent and is dangerous.”

“The sedition law is a terrible legacy of the Raj, which has been used to suppress freedom of speech. It must be re-looked at. Then, you have the government playing the national interest card. But all of these also mean that freedom of speech is very well contested in India.”

Asking the people to debate and discus issues instead of burning houses and banning books, he said: “There is a great amount of work to be done. We need to hold the establishments, both the Big Cats and the Big Dogs accountable. And when we disagree, it is not required to burn houses, ban books or lead protests. We should all rather discus in a robust way.”

In his new book, he proposes a framework for civilised conflict in a world where we are all becoming neighbors with vivid examples, from his personal experience of China’s Orwellian censorship apparatus to the controversy around Charlie Hebdo to a very English court case involving food writer Nigella Lawson.

The noted advocate of free speech concluded his session by saying that the powerful have always been scared of free speech because it is the “power of the powerless.”

Saket Suman is in Jaipur at the invitation of Teamwork arts. He can be contacted at saket.s@ians.in)

–IANS

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