'The Left brands any criticism of Islam -- its history, its dogmas -- 'Islamophobic', conflating criticism of an ideology with criticism of a people,' notes Vikram Johri.
Illustration: Uttam Ghosh/Rediff.com
A recent episode of the Priyanka Chopra-starrer Quantico, a show about the FBI cracking down on terror targeted at America, showcased a Hindu (Indian?) terror plot when one of the masterminds of the attack was shown carrying a rudraksh.
After a furore, the makers of the show as well as Ms Chopra apologised for the depiction.
Expectedly, some in the media painted the furore itself as barmy, another manifestation of what is often pooh-poohed as 'flimsy nationalism' in enlightened circles.
Meanwhile, Atul Kochhar, a Michelin-starred chef, tweeted his condemnation of the episode, speaking of how the followers of Islam had 'terrorised' Hindus for thousands of years.
He was promptly sacked by the luxury hotel in Dubai that employed him.
All of these events bring out the fraught nature of the freedom of expression debate that has become the defining fault line of our times.
On the one hand, Quantico showrunner Josh Safran has categorically stated that he would never show a Muslim terrorist on the show in protest against Donald Trump's anti-Muslim statements.
While the sentiment is admirable -- and the need to not stereotype a community laudable -- such blanket scripting decisions can often lead to the sort of make-believe scenario where an Indian group plots taking down Manhattan.
One does not have to be a bigot to remind Mr Safran of the reality of 9/11.
Even so, if freedom of expression is to be our guiding goal, allowing for a show to have any permutation of offender/victim, regardless of the lived experience of terror, then the same yardstick should be applied to a protest of the show so long as it does not advocate violence.
Mr Kochhar's tweet -- and whether or not it was in good taste can be debated -- merely stated a reality of Indian history, albeit in extreme and perhaps regrettable language.
The history of Islam's rise in the subcontinent is riddled with forced conversions and destruction of temples.
To say this in civil language should not be the anathema that the Left has ensured it is.
While the Left peddles freedom of expression as an umbrella term for all manner of speech, in reality the term permits only sanitised versions of history.
Why is the Left unwilling to deal with history without first checking for its appositeness to its ideological cause?
Surely, it cannot be the case that the Left is so monolithic that it would not permit a frank discussion of any historical reality if such a discussion might make some of its adherent uncomfortable?
The real reason might lie elsewhere.
Consider this: The Left brands any criticism of Islam -- its history, its dogmas -- 'Islamophobic', conflating criticism of an ideology with criticism of a people.
To the Left, any criticism of Islam automatically translates to a contempt for living, breathing Muslims, rendering any dispassionate analysis of the religion impossible.
The modern Left is unable to make this distinction because when tackling other historical wrongs, it burdens entire communities with the crimes of their ancestors.
Terms like 'white privilege' and 'historical guilt' are bandied about carelessly in an effort to put the blame on someone living today for something done 200 years ago.
What this mindset entails is a refusal to read certain histories and deal with them sincerely in order to have a better understanding of social chasms.
If we are to study historical oppression conscientiously, we must not be selective about the nature/perpetrator of the oppression.
On the flip side, the Left is not averse to speech that directly or indirectly endorses violence if the speech is in line with its ideological slants.
We witnessed this during the JNU agitation when the Left supported the students' right to call for India's demise, oblivious to or deliberately ignorant of the fact that the demise of a territory entails real violence against its people.
There is another downside to this rigorous silencing.
When the Left enforces its version of truth to such an extent that a man can be sacked from his job for a tweet that did not promote violence, it opens up the space for extreme right-wing ideas to germinate on social media, secret Web sites and the like.
This, in turn, is far more pernicious to social order than the Left's urgent desire to keep all historical discussion unidimensional.
When Ms Chopra apologised for the offending episode, she was careful to mention that she is a 'proud Indian'. That is welcome but pride as an Indian is not -- and should not be -- the criterion for scripting a show.
Rather, the episode rankles because it tries to bring imaginative latitude to a hot-button issue whose association with Islam is so deep-seated.
Yet, Ms Chopra is unlikely to lose too much on account of the fracas. (The show has been cancelled but that's due to poor ratings.)
On the other hand, Mr Kochhar, who too apologised, has lost his job and his reputation.
We may not agree with him but, on balance, his ouster seems more an outcome of thought policing than of the incendiary nature of his tweet.