From France to India, Charlie Hebdo Reminds Us of the Real Promise of Free Speech


It took less than a day after the massacre of staffers, policemen, a visitor and asecurity guard at the Charlie Hebdo office in Paris for the discussion in India to swing back towards the need for “responsibility.”

Kiran Bedi, former senior police officer, now a prominent politician, tweeted just hours after the attack by masked gunmen that killed Charb, the editor at Charlie Hebdo, and many of his staff: “France Terror-Shoot-Out sends a message: why deliberately provoke or poke? Be respectful and civil. Don’t hurt people’s sensitivities!”


Even by the thick-skinned standards of contemporary Indian discourse, Bedi’s tweet was remarkably insensitive. But it was also undeniably representative of the way the Indian discussion on freedoms of expression has developed — or been choked off, depending on your perspective. That question, “why provoke?”, needs to be more closely examined, because it has strangled so much of Indian intellectual and cultural activity — and everyday life — for far too long.

In 2006, when the Danish cartoon controversy came to a head, many writers in India felt stampeded into one kind of response or another. To support the stance Charlie Hebdo took, republishing cartoons that carried images of the Prophet Muhammad that many Muslims found offensive, was to support the principle of free speech unhindered by the threats made by the religious.

But there was little space for those who wanted to say that they found the cartoons gratuitously offensive, did not endorse them personally, but felt that those who had drawn them and published them should not be persecuted or harmed in any case. I began following Charlie Hebdo’s work then, especially its provocative covers, which took on the Pope, Jesus, Jews, rabbis, French leaders, the Prophet Muhammad, the Boko Haram victims, Islam, Christianity, Judaism etc. I found its work childish and sometimes offensive, but I admired the magazine’s determination to offend all parties equally.

As I learned about the cases it had fought in the courts, my view of the Charlie Hebdoeditorial team shifted: the cartoons might have been juvenile, but the team’s belief that free expression must accommodate all forms of satire, protest and parody was deeply serious, and embedded in a tradition of speaking rude, outrageous truth to power that went back centuries in… read more at

Categories: Asia, Countries, India

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