Josna Rege

Posts Tagged ‘right to dissent in India’

347. Free Speech: Goodbye to All That?

In 1970s, 2010s, blogs and blogging, Britain, history, India, Inter/Transnational, places, Politics, Stories, United States, Words & phrases, writing on October 25, 2015 at 12:47 pm
Photo: Simos Tsapnidis, 1967, ©Manolis Daloukas (from watsonssoapbox.wordpress.com)

Photo: Simos Tsapnidis, 1967, ©Manolis Daloukas (from watsonssoapbox.wordpress.com)

(from allwonders.com)

(from allwonders.com)

It must have been during our stay in London in the autumn of 1973 when Andrew and I were visiting Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park, that 150 year-old emblem of Britain’s commitment to free speech and freedom of assembly. On our previous visit we had encountered a succession of people making impassioned speeches, heavily peppered with oddballs ranting about the apocalypse and the Second Coming. Along with the other passers-by we listened politely for a short time, perhaps asking a question or accepting a flyer before edging out of their line of vision.

This time it was an altogether different scene, so weird that it refuses to come to focus in my mind’s eye. I see not one, but a group of people, mostly young, who have set up some sort of table—dining table, operating table, it isn’t clear—on which is set what looks like a monstrous loaf of bread baked in the shape of a phallus. They are cutting it into slices and offering a piece to any and all takers brave enough to sample it. For they declare openly that, quite apart from its priapic form, there is more to the loaf than meets the eye: marijuana has been baked into it. Further, they insist that they are not advocating the recreational use of this substance—which would be illegal and actionable, even at Speakers’ Corner—but rather, that they are partaking in a religious sacrament.

9780374289331Here’s where my memory gets even more hazy. The group claimed direct descent from Robert Graves, long-resident outside of England in Majorca, Spain (then known to me only as the author of I, Claudius, which was on my parents’ bookshelves in my childhood and which I had read surreptitiously and with considerable bewilderment). They were even flourishing some kind of founding document with Graves’ signature on it, bestowing authority and legitimacy upon them. As I recall, they were a revival of some sort of ancient fertility cult, perhaps one of those described in Graves’ work, The White Goddess. Somewhere, in my old five-drawer file cabinet or buried deep in a box in our basement, I may still have the flier that we brought away with us. I didn’t ingest their offering, though, and cannot testify to the veracity of the group’s claims, with respect to either its ingredients or their origin myth.

Robert Graves regularly comes up in my teaching, either as the author of the autobiographical Goodbye to All That (1929), or as a mentor in to younger writers like Alan Sillitoe in the 1950s and 1960s, or as a character in Pat Barker’s novel, Regeneration. It was only once, in a contemporary British fiction class, that I ventured to tell my students the story of the phallus-worshipping fertility cult at Hyde Park Corner purportedly founded by the man himself. Their jaws dropped and the room fell silent.

The funeral procession for M. M. Kalburgi, a writer who was shot at point-blank range in his home in Karnataka, India, in August 2015. Photo Credit STRDEL/AFP/Getty Images

The funeral procession for M. M. Kalburgi, a writer who was shot at point-blank range in his home in Karnataka, India, in August 2015. Photo Credit STRDEL/AFP/Getty Images

This would just be a colorful tale from my chequered past if it were not for the serious threats to free speech around the world today, even in the nations that enshrine this sacred principle in their own origin myths. In country after country, United States, Britain, Australia, even Canada, free speech is being curtailed in the name of security, swept away as the spectre of terrorism is conjured up. In India as I write, the leadership of the ruling party is refusing to condemn the recent murders of writers who held views, such as rationalism or atheism, that run counter to the crusading beliefs of the Hindu Right. In so doing—or rather, in refusing to do so—the Center gives the extremists tacit license to kill. In such a climate, people who practice minority religions or hold dissenting views are afraid to speak out, indeed, afraid to be who they are.

Meanwhile, in the Land of the Free, even giving utterance to certain words online, let alone out loud, is sufficient to put one on a watchlist, or worse. Nowadays, simply being on a watchlist, whether or not the suspicion has any foundation, gives the government license to kill, and to get away with it.

Photo: Simos Tsapnidis, 1967, © Manolis Daloukas (ontheroadarchives.blogspot.com)

Photo: Simos Tsapnidis, 1967, © Manolis Daloukas (ontheroadarchives.blogspot.com)

It seems that the time-honoured tradition of free speech at Speakers’ Corner is under threat as well. It is incumbent upon us all to uphold free speech by exercising it, refusing to be silenced in a climate that has cast a chill over our fundamental human right. Thinking back to that performance in Hyde Park more than forty years ago with its flagrant, joyous disregard of convention, I may gently tease, but will never trivialize the open society that permitted it.

P.S. Thanks to fellow-blogger Don Scrooby, whose photographs of Hyde Park in Candid Impressions sparked this memory.

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