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Give and Take


The Times of India, Dec. 23, 2004

Photo: Behzti (Dishonor)

Violent protests by some Sikh groups have forced a theatre in Birmingham to stop performances of Behzti (Dishonour), a play by Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti. There are reports that members of Sikh extremist groups were involved in the storming of the theatre and clashes with police which followed. The first forced closure of a modern play in Britain has got rights groups in U.K. fretting about the effects of coercion on the freedom of speech and expression. Their worries are justified.

The battle to win freedom of speech and expression has been long, but over time, people have won for themselves the right to express themselves without fear or favour. Attempts to limit these freedoms come from governments under the garb of 'national security,' or from vested interest groups that have real or imagined grievances against what writers, artists, playwrights or media want to say. Civil society cannot tolerate fetters on freedoms. Nothing forces people to go and watch a play whose premises they find abhorrent or distasteful. Similarly, nothing can curb the playwright's right to expression, or theatre-owners' rights to stage a play they like, or the right of folks to buy tickets to the show and watch it uninterrupted. 'Your rights end where my nose begins,' goes the basic liberal principle. History shows that societies that follow it prosper in the long run. Those living in open societies and profiting from liberalism cannot hold that principle to ransom when it suits them.

The mirror image of Birmingham is France, where Islamic students have been banned from wearing the hijab [head-scarf], or veil, to state-run schools. The French republic is founded on strong secular lines, where religious practice is a private matter and the state does not tolerate public displays of faith. This 'hard secularism' can lapse into intolerance and in this case, it has. Governments should stay away from policing public morals, or telling people how to dress, or how to behave in public. The collective intelligence of communities is often enough to sort out whether it's all right to wear hijabs to school. But when freedoms are under attack, as they seem to be in Birmingham, liberal governments should intervene on behalf of liberty. The ideal government should enforce the liberal principle, making sure that nobody transgresses other people's freedoms, and leave it at that.