The 'anti-Islam' movie which generated ugly violence as well as the recent advertisements posted in New York metro stations have raised debates on whether they can be considered “offensive”, “hateful”, “racist” and so on. The only purpose of these debates is to expound one's subjective limits of tolerance given that the right to free speech in the United States has very limited exceptions and that the state's arm deals strictly, as it should, with those getting provoked into violence.
Much beyond these debates, however, lies the larger question of the very meaning of rights and the way we look at them.
Even though the notion of rights has ancient roots, individual rights got widespread political traction during the Age of Enlightenment and the accompanying formation of nation-States. The outbreak of individualism during that time resulted in the consensus that a man, by his very existence, was entitled to rights and nation-states were expected to be guarantors thereof.
India, by contrast, was never really a ‘nation-state' in the European sense as Indian thought usually put in a central position, as Tagore has pointed out, a society guided by dharma (righteous duty) conceived and practised communally in the vast and diverse terrains of the geography of India.
This is not to say that Indian civilisation was a ‘right-less' one, but that rights were looked at, if you will, from the other end of the stick. The idea was that when everyone is engaged in the dutiful performance of dharma, adhikaar (right) was a conferment naturally flowing therefrom. In addition to the satisfaction of having earned the right, the religious performance of one's duty would provide a sense of proportion in the enjoyment of that right.
Indeed, the wave of colonisation which spread across the world would afflict India as well, resulting in oppression and a large-scale deprivation of basic rights. Many Indians exposed to the ways of the West could hardly ignore the stark differences between rights enjoyed by Britons in England and Indians in India. This led to several protests - some demanding specific rights and others home-rule.
The romanticism inherent in such movements, however, carried the risk of dissociation of rights from corresponding duties, a dilution in ‘duty-consciousness' one observes in revolution after revolution in India, whether by the oppressed sections, Naxals or Kashmiriyat.
One man realised the imminence of this shift earlier than most other revolutionaries of that time. And his response to the then Unesco Director, Julian Huxley, who asked for his views on the draft Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), sums it up beautifully.
Writing that his “illiterate but wise mother” taught him that “all rights to be deserved and preserved came from duty well done”, Gandhi suggested that the idea of defining rights apart from one's duties - as the UDHR did - needed revision. (CWMG, Vol. 95, p. 137)
Similarly, at a time when the Constituent Assembly was debating fundamental rights which are found in Article 19 of our Constitution, his view was that such rights could only be those, the exercise of which was in the interest “of the whole world”. (p. 353)
It seems rather paradoxical that a man who fought for the rights of his countrymen would consistently stress that rights flowed from duties well-performed. Every right that wasn't correlated to a corresponding preceding duty was, according to him, “a usurpation hardly worth fighting for” (p. 229).
That concept would become a critical accompaniment in his satyagraha, right from his days in South Africa, where assisting the British in the Boer War was a duty that preceded the demand for rights as a British subject - something every Indian in South Africa was - and in India, where opposition to an unjust law in order to reclaim rights snatched away under that law could only be legitimate if there was dutiful adherence to other just laws.
As we grapple today with the contours of a particular right - that of free speech - in an increasingly sensitive world, what, one wonders, could be the ‘corresponding duty' that may, according to Gandhi, precede the right to speech?
Free speech, like most other individual rights, doesn't require any positive action on the part of the state to allow its enjoyment. Indeed, the tongue, the mind and words are that of a man alone. What it does provide is a guarantee that the state will use its force to prevent anyone, including itself, from unlawfully stifling its populace from enjoying it.
Therefore, if, by guaranteeing free speech, the state provides us protection from the conduct of those desirous of stifling it, there is, in my view, a corresponding responsibility on us in our conduct while exercising that freedom. This responsibility has to be entirely personal, one not enforced by the state, but guided by a basic sense of regard for others - a sense of sadbhavna.
Therefore, when we focus solely on the right of an individual to knowingly insult (as opposed to criticise) what millions hold as divine - notwithstanding its legality - something much more deleterious than the hurt felt by those millions is the entrenchment of the ‘I' without an iota of a sense of ‘us'.
And, when gruesome unpardonable acts by the offended prompts insecure governments to encroach further upon the scope of individual freedoms, the subconscious clamour for the entrenchment of the ‘I' becomes even louder. The need, then, to approach our rights from the ‘duty-conscious end of the stick' looks awfully utopian and the concept of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam (“the world is but a family”) in the Upanishad becomes an ornament to merely strut around as the pride of Indian thought.
Yet, it is in these very complicated times, when our emotions force us on the road of pragmatism and combat, that the idea of Gandhi lends us a hopelessly romantic and, yet, surreally convincing approach to life and its freedoms. And, as the ball is put squarely in our court, the toothless smile convinces us further with a friendly reminder that changing the world starts as an inward exercise.