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‘Existence of Political Prisoners Betrayal of India’s Values’: Amia Srinivasan

Amia Srinivasan speaks with The Quint about free speech, censorship, cancel culture, and more.

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"It is, to my mind, a betrayal of India’s most fundamental founding principles to have political prisoners at all, especially those who don’t stand trial and who can be indefinitely held without charge, without evidence being brought against them," said Amia Srinivasan, Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory at All Souls College, Oxford University, and write of the 2021 bestseller book, The Right to Sex: Feminism in the Twenty-first Century.

Srinivasan sat down to chat with The Quint at the 17th edition of the Jaipur Literature Festival held from 1-5 February 2024.

Read edited excerpts below.

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Can there be a neutral approach to freedom of speech?

There can, in principle, theoretically be a neutral approach. But as free speech is actually invoked, especially by right wing governments, there is nothing neutral about it. That’s incredibly pernicious.

The whole idea of free speech in its true form is that it's neutral on the question of content. It’s supposed to protect what you say, regardless of what you’re saying.

So long as it doesn’t violate some basic rules, you’re not lying about other people, you are not infringing on copyright, or you’re not inciting violence, you are allowed to say what you want and the state will not intervene.

That is the principle of free speech. The way the notion of free speech is used increasingly in India, in the US, in the UK, in other places where you have resurgent right wing governments, is as an ideological notion. So you’re free to say the right thing, but you’re not free to dissent.

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When you talk about dissent, I want to ask you about political prisoners, like Umar Khalid for instance, who are languishing behind jails for years on end without the courts hearing their bail pleas, when they were only practising their right to free speech. Can you comment on that?

The test of a country’s commitment to democracy and to free speech is how it treats its political dissidents. The question everyone should ask themselves is not whether they agree with something any given political prisoner said.

What if the tables were turned? What if a government with the opposing views was in power who then disliked what I said? When you run that contrafactual, you realise that you would be the one in prison.

It is, to my mind, a betrayal of India’s most fundamental founding principles to have political prisoners at all, especially those who don’t stand trial and who can be indefinitely held without charge, without evidence being brought against them.

India seems to increasingly want to be like every other country. I’m very puzzled as to why. I don’t see why national pride cannot be found in what has been so unusual about India’s experiment as a huge country of largely, historically, very poor people with extraordinarily religious, cultural, linguistic diversity, committed to being a place that is intrinsically diverse, secular, and at the same time, spiritual, radically democratic.

That is what is extraordinary and has been historically extraordinary about this country. The loss of that should be seen as a tragedy. Each and every political prisoner in India is an example of that tragedy.

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In some US universities, we’ve been seeing students having to face repercussions for speaking about Palestine amidst Israel’s war in Gaza. What is your take on that?

It’s very scary. Harvard printed out the faces on vans of students who were critical of Israel’s actions in Gaza, and these were driven around campus, showing these people as ‘antisemites’.

If students aren’t allowed to speak freely, then who is? The whole point of being a student at a university is being able to explore ideas and possibilities, and concepts.

You need to remember that the history of protests, in most countries, has been led by students. Students are an extraordinarily powerful group. I think the right wing politicians know this even more than people on the left.

Students speak freely, they don’t defer to authority, they have a lot of time on their hands, they’re not so old as to be jaded and cynical, and they have hope for a better future. They’re the most dangerous threat to power.

So it’s very troubling to see crackdowns on students anywhere in the world. But I hope students, in general, won’t give up on being that dissident, that radical force that they’ve historically been. 

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When we talk about dissent and censorship, what do you think about the self-censorship that many OTT platforms are imposing on themselves? Recently, in India, we saw the Nayanthara-starrer ‘Annapoorani’ being pulled down from Netflix soon after an individual registered a complaint against it. 

It’s important to realise that most platforms are owned by companies who are just trying to make profit. They are not interested in holding up the ideals of free speech, artistic freedom, or free expression. They just want to make money.

So, of course, they will cave when groups protest, especially if those groups seem to have the power to deprive them of more profit. It’s incredibly depressing.

The question each person should ask themselves is not – ‘Does this particular film or book offend me?’ The question is – ‘Do I want the institutions around me to silence things that are offensive to some people?’

Everything you or I say is offensive to someone. My existence is offensive to some people.

But it’s interesting when we move from a state that is at least ostensibly committed to principles of free speech and expression to companies that have no such commitment. The question is how much of our lives should we be giving up to corporate media. 

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Would it be fair to say that increasingly countries are being run like companies too?

There’s an increasing number of quite serious political thinkers around the world who think that countries should be managed like companies with CEOs, which is why they love a strongman like Trump or Modi. They see these men as effective top-down leaders.

The thing about being the CEO of a company is that companies aren’t democracies and they don’t have to tolerate dissent. They can fire anyone.

The advantage of having a country like a company is that things get done. Decisions are made, strategies are employed, policies are enacted. Change happens.

But one thing I would urge everyone to be cautious of is the trade off between the feeling of things getting done and all the rights, freedoms, and civil liberties that we used to have.

People, around the world, are too quick to sacrifice liberal values and democracy for the sake of what they think is a well-managed country. 

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What are your views on cancel culture?

Cancel culture is a term I don’t love because I think it’s a slightly ideological notion. When people on the right criticise those on the left, we don’t call it cancel culture. When a left political activist is put in prison, we don’t call that cancel culture.

But when someone on the left criticises someone on the right, we call it an attempt at cancellation. It’s as if cancellation is something that can only be performed by the left. It’s not a content-neutral principle. 

At the same time, I do think there is this increasingly social phenomenon where people are very punitive and very quick to criticise people that they disagree with, and to present people they disagree with as ‘not worth engaging’. That does worry me.

Pretty much every human is worth engaging with, regardless of how noxious, awful, or unjust their views are because when you give up on other humans, you’ve given up on the basic project of democratic sociology. And that’s to give up on the most egalitarian form of life we’ve been able to create so far. 

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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