‘I may not agree with you but...’: Manmohan Singh, Voltaire or someone else – who actually said it?

On Saturday, a post by the Congress social media handle set the cat among the pigeons and restarted a debate about one of the world’s most wrongly attributed quotes.

The Congress shared a social media post juxtaposing PM Modi’s recent utterance: “They can be identified by their clothes” and posted a quote by former PM Singh which went: “I may not agree with what you say but I will defend your right to say it.”

The oft-repeated quote – often held as the bulwark of liberal thought that allows dissent of all kinds – is often attributed to the legendary French philosopher Voltaire and is repeated ad nauseam.

For starters, let’s be clear that it’s not a quote former PM Singh came up with. On the other hand, PM Modi’s ‘identify by their clothes’ comment was made during the Jharkhand campaign trail, which while lacking any intellectual weight, was definitely original.

The remark is actually often attributed to Voltaire but that's not who said it. The quote is the work of his biographer Evelyn Beatrice Hall.

The quote first appeared in Hall’s book 'The Friends of Voltaire'. The website Quotes Investigator notes: “Yet, the elegant phrase depicted Hall’s conception of Voltaire’s internal mental attitude and not his actual spoken words. Indeed, Hall asserted that the words were hers and not Voltaire’s in a 1939 letter published in the journal 'Modern Language Notes'. Nevertheless, the misunderstanding persists to this day.”

Now, Dr Singh appears to have cited Voltaire thrice. Twice in 2005 and once in 2006.

The first appears to be in August 2005 when he was speaking at the Silver Jubilee celebrations of Prajashakti. He had said: “I am aware that your publication takes a definite political view. That is the role of any publication associated with a political party or movement. Our democracy enables each one of us to hold an opinion and purvey it. Voltaire had said, "I may disagree with what you have to say, but I shall defend, to the death, your right to say it." This is the essence of a liberal democracy. No other political system gives us this liberty. We must recognise this intrinsic value of democracy and preserve it with care. It is a tribute to our democracy that a partisan publication is in fact given the freedom to be partisan!”

Later, on Nov 14 2005, while unveiling a statue of Pandit Nehru at JNU campus, Dr Singh said: “We also learn in a University how to deal with differences of opinion. For in expressing one's own opinion freely, we implicitly recognise the right of another to similarly express a different opinion freely. I do sincerely believe that a University is built on the foundation of liberalism. It can never thrive without the assurance of a liberal environment. Every member of a University community, if he or she wishes to aspire to be worthy of the University, must accept the truth of Voltaire's classic statement. Voltaire proclaimed: "I may disagree with what you have to say, but I shall defend, to the death, your right to say it." That idea must be the corner-stone of a liberal institution.”

One notes the irony in misquoting Voltaire’s ‘cornerstone of a liberal institution’ quote while unveiling the statue of the PM who added ‘reasonable restrictions’ to the freedom of expression clause in the Constitution.

A year later, Dr Singh quoted Voltaire again during seminar on Making Globalization Work: An Indian Perspective had said while discussing liberal thought: “I do think the great contribution of western intellectual thought to modern society has been the idea of liberalism. Amartya has reminded us in his book “The Argumentative Indian” that the idea of “pluralism” has its roots not just in western liberal thought but in Indian philosophy as well. It is true that debate and disagreement was a part of our intellectual tradition for centuries. However, the essence of liberalism captured by Voltaire’s famous aphorism, “I may disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”, is an idea we owe to the rise of liberal philosophy. Dr Stiglitz epitomizes this tradition and I am, therefore, delighted to be here at a seminar that will discuss his work.”

Note that Dr Singh said it was an aphorism – a pithy observation which contains a general truth – and not Voltaire’s direct quote.

One must be glad that Dr Singh – or his speechwriters at the very least – had learnt that Voltaire’s quote was an aphorism and one which wasn’t spoken by the French writer.

However, it’s quite clear that credit for the quote belongs to Evelyn Beatrice Hall and not Dr Manmohan Singh or the man who called himself Voltaire.

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