Right to free speech and expression of scholars must be factually tempered

By: timesofindia.indiatimes.com 9 months ago
Right to free speech and expression of scholars must be factually tempered

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A country's history reflects the flow of events through centuries. Penning events of the recent past factually is not very difficult. But dispassionate factual narration of a country's historical events, though extremely difficult, is a necessity. For, it will tell future generations about events, incidents and personalities that shaped the country, its polity, society and culture. Historians had the privilege, patience and perseverance to rummage through voluminous documents with independent sources and the government and those preserved in archives to cull out a narrative which we read as history in schools and went a fraction deeper if we evinced interest in the subject in college and university level.

Leaders who played important roles in events that shaped the country's history had expressed their mind through speeches or actions. Historians read and researched historical evidence and archived material to frame a sequence of events and narrate it in a story form. Did they keep out their personal impression from the narration?

A certain class of documented events and speeches of historical leaders could evoke varied perceptions in an individual, including historians, who too exercised their right to free speech and expression while narrating history. This information, written by historians according to their perception, given to future generations through history books determines the reputation and dignity enjoyed by leaders of the past.

When today's events figure in tomorrow's history books, it is possible that it would be described as a period when communalism in the shape of cow vigilantism, riots and intolerance gagged the right to free speech. Development work of the government would possibly get buried under tonnes of material on intolerance. That will be a historian's right to free speech guided by individual perception of events.

But is right to misinformation also part of right to free speech and expression? And does misinformation affect the country's dignity, which influences and affects countrymen's collective right to dignity?

Projecting a historical figure on the basis of his deeds and completely ignoring his speeches, which give an insight into his traits, is misinformation. History, which we read in schools and colleges, is replete with such examples. The blame for such misinformation must go to some historians who, in exercise of right to free speech and expression, have to some extent played with citizens' right to information and the right to dignity, which they derive from the country's history.

Recently, many articles were written in newspapers on Sir Syed Ahmed Khan on his 200th birth anniversary. Glowing tributes must be paid to this man, who rose to the position of a subordinate judge, for having the vision to establish Muhammadan Anglo-Oriental College in Aligarh in 1875, which later blossomed into the educational hub called Aligarh Muslim University (AMU).

The vice-chancellor of a Hyderabad-based reputed law university wrote in a recent article, "Sir Syed's concept of nation was inextricably woven with secular ideals." He quoted Sir Syed's lecture in Patna in 1883: "My friends! This India of ours is populated by two famous communities, the Hindus and the Muslims. The two communities stand in the same relation to India in which the head and the heart stand in relation to the human body." He quoted another speech of Sir Syed in 1884 in Gurdspur, more or less on the same lines.

What he did not include in his narrative eulogising the AMU founder's secular credentials was Sir Syed's vitriolic reaction to the formation of Indian National Congress (INC) in December 1885, with bar-at-law Womesh Chandra Bonerjee as president. In his speech in Meerut in March 1888, Sir Syed called the Congress an organisation of Hindus aimed at annihilating Muslims and warned of catastrophe if such a design was ever put into practice.

Giving the example of then situation in Aligarh, Sir Syed said, "Dushera and Moharrum fell together for three years, and no one knows what took place. It is worth notice how, when an agitation was started against cow killing, the sacrifice of cows increased enormously, and religious animosity grew on both sides, as all who live in India know well."

Asking Muslims to be friends with the British and dissuading them from joining INC, Sir Syed said, "Therefore, we should cultivate friendship with them (British), and should adopt that method by which their rule may remain permanent and firm in India, and may not pass into the hands of Bengalis. This is our true friendship with our Christian rulers."

On the possibility of peaceful co-existence between Hindus and Muslims, Sir Syed said, "To hope that both could remain equal is to desire the impossible and the inconceivable. At the same time, you must remember that although the number of Mohammedans is less than that of Hindus, and although they contain far fewer people who have received high English education, yet they must not be considered insignificant or weak. Probably, they would be by themselves to maintain their own position. But suppose they were not. Then our Musalman brothers, the Pathans, would come out as a swarm of locusts from their mountain valleys, and make rivers of blood to flow from their frontiers on the north to the extreme end of Bengal."

Right to free speech and expression of historians and scholars must be factually tempered, for they bear the unenviable task of meeting the countrymen's important right to information and right to dignity.