Bhangramuffin and entrepreneurial musician Honey Singh may have become collateral damage in the justified public uproar over rape. Following an online campaign and an FIR against his allegedly misogynistic lyrics, his performance in a Gurgaon hotel was cancelled. The first method of expressing disapproval is completely valid. The second, the FIR, should be seen as unacceptable. It amounts to censorship, taking advantage of the power of the police and the courts to stay Singh’s freedoms. An artist deprived of a performance venue is an artist whose right to expression has been stifled. It must be defended, irrespective of public opinions about the value of his work. All attempts to ban creative work should be opposed, whether they originate from government or the public.
Commercial music frequently employs shock and awe. It is a crowded market and a spot of outrage helps artistes to propel themselves up the charts. Leading acts and performers are routinely arrested on obscenity charges but, typically, it is for outrageous behaviour, not for the specific content of their music. It is true that some of Honey Singh’s lyrics are designed to be provocative, in the worst sense of the term. He has claimed that they flowed neither from his pen nor from his mouth. However, these songs clearly passed through his hands to appear under labels he is associated with. He cannot avoid responsibility for them now.
Yet, a ban is never a good idea, with respect to expression in any medium. The Indian state has always been a little too eager to ban texts in response to the flimsiest claims of hurt sentiments. When private citizens, or those who claim to represent them, use the state machinery to initiate steps that amount to a ban, it is time to draw the line. It is better for citizens to tune out whatever disturbs them. It is also legitimate for them to advocate their point of view, and to associate and organise in order to increase the weight of their opinion. But like the state, they should make sure that the measures they take do not end up compromising free speech. That would do democracy a disservice.