Milking the Freedom of Expression

Irregularly but unendingly, the tussle over freedom of expression spills over from the realm of speech, where it should firmly remain, into the streets. Once there it often turns violently physical. The street-soldiers are seldom aware of what they are protesting about, yet are sure in their mind that the offender has caused some insult & injury to their dearly held icons & beliefs. The debates in media rarely analyze the offending free speech on the touchstone of reason to determine if the freedom has been unreasonably exercised. Instead, the proponents of free speech brook not the slightest whip of censorship especially when it comes to the ‘intellectual license’ of writers, cartoonists, artists, etc. This ‘license’, they hold, is beyond review and reproach. On the other hand, opponents too assume their right as unfettered and inviolable to assault the free speech they hold in contempt with whatever means at their disposal. With these entrenched positions, reason is invariably the sure casualty. Such a state of affairs prevents evolving an ethos where meaningful resolution of differences can take place or respectful disagreements coexist peacefully.

Sample these snippets from recent controversies(For a more detailed update on contemporary history read Ritu Sarin).

She should be treated as a political refugee in India with a right to live with dignity and security. She is entitled to all rights which have been given to the Tibetan refugees. A victim of political persecution is being persecuted further since fellow travelling with fundamentalism wins vote banks. The irony of this issue is the customary silence of the Prime Minister and the Central Government.

I don’t want to speak elaborately on the role played by the Centre on her stay in West Bengal. But if her stay creates a problem for peace, she should leave the state.” “It is the sole prerogative of the Centre to decide on the stay of any foreign national. No state government has a role in it.

The question for consideration in Indian society today is whether the right of an individual, including an artist, to express himself with freedom includes his right to commit blasphemy. The most prominent amongst the fundamental rights guaranteed under the Constitution is Article 19(1)(a), which guarantees to a citizen the freedom of speech and expression. This right is not absolute. It is subject to reasonable restrictions, which, amongst others, empower the state to make laws that can restrict the exercise of this right in the interest of public order, decency or morality.

Such attacks reflecting intolerance and vendetta cannot be tolerated. The unique diversity of the country needs to be celebrated.” “Describing the attacks on artists as “distressing happenings”, it was added that latest incident was nothing but “a fascist attack on our culture and freedom of expression.

Curiously, all these comments had been, are being, and will be used whenever opportune moment comes by for the contending parties. Purposefully the above comments have been de-contextualized to bring to relief their universal application, only the position taken is decided by crass opportunism. Readers are urged to follow the links provided to find for themselves who the defenders of freedom were and who of culture. Mercifully, our people are either too busy fighting for daily survival to bother about policing ‘culture’, ‘religion’, or ‘morality’; or are simply far more tolerant than we are lead to believe. Incident after incident one will have to conclude, however reluctantly depending upon one’s leanings, that a controversy was manufactured to suit someone’s agenda in each & every case. Taslima Nasreen’s book Dwikhandita was published 4 years back, CPI(M) government banned it, and later High Court at Kolkatta struck down the ban 2 years ago. The latest flash point happens just after the ‘cadre-recapture’ of Nandigram firmly points the needle of suspicion at CPI(M), who has used it as a diversionary tactic. The activists of the Sambhaji Brigade that vandalized Bhandarkar Institute had at best a tenuous link with James Laine or his fatuous remark about the parentage of Shivaji, until of course they were fed with required awareness by crafty manipulators to suit a political agenda. An obscure outfit overnight became the defender of ‘Maharashtrian Asmita’. So much so that 4 years on it has to merely demand the inclusion of Marathas among the OBCs for the Chief Minister to immediately concede to study their demands, and may be accede to them in 4 months. The debate over the dredging of the channel in Palk Strait, a pet of DMK government, should have been hauled over the coals of economic, technical & environmental viability to test its soundness. This would have been legitimate & in the interests of our people. Instead, BJP chose an obscurantist position of damage to the mythological Ram-Setu to buttress its sectarian politics (If Ram was an ideal King, caring even for public opinion, would he have held up a development project in his kingdom just for the glory of a bridge whose utility was long over?) It suited DMK Chief Minister very well, when he countered,

‘Who is this Ramar (Lord Ram)? In which engineering college did he study and become a civil engineer? When did he build this so-called bridge? Is there any evidence for this?” “Even Valmiki has said that Ram was a drunkard. I urge Advani to get into a debate with me after reading Valmiki’s Ramayana.

Challenging Ram goes down well with DMK’s brand of politics & even though BJP attempted to capitalize the issue it could muster very little support in Tamilnadu itself. Another opportunity to address substantive issues facing people and economy is deliberately sacrificed to garner electoral advantage.

Freedom of Speech & Expression is included in our constitution as a fundamental right among other rights bestowed upon us. It is an inalienable right. But for all political parties without exception it is an instrument of politics, to be used and abused to suit their parochial interests. Even a casual study shows that each & every controversy regarding freedom of expression has been raked up to suit some parties’ partisan interests, willfully & methodically.

Constitution on the other hand has enjoined some duties on us. One implicit duty is to respect others’ fundamental rights. While exercising one’s rights, one has to be alive to the injury one may cause to others, either thoughtlessly or unintentionally. In short, our rights can not be absolute or sovereign, they will be or have to be circumscribed by the exercise of same rights by others. Therefore, I beg to differ with the extreme position taken by some, who believe in unfettered exercise of the freedom of expression by artistes, writers, journalists and others. An article by Bibek Debroy articulates this position well. However, he misguidedly concludes that the privilege of arbitrating over competing rights should be left to the framers of public policy, i.e. government & legislatures. When we have seen that the political parties are the worst & only assaulters of freedom of expression, abdicating to them the adjudicating power is like trusting the welfare of children to pedophiles. One would hesitate to trust this function to even judiciary, which has shown at times scant disregard to the principle of equality before law. A case in point is over the application of ‘Rights to Information act’ to judiciary itself. It has also shown nervous sensitivity to even legitimate criticism of judges and judiciary- unhesitatingly holding the offending parties in contempt of the court. Freedom of expression is a right fundamental to the health of democracy. We cannot let parties who have infringed upon it be the arbitrators. May a “Freedom of Expression act’ be debated & enacted, which would have an independent panel of commissioners, much like the RTI act, to decide both when the freedom needs to be curtailed and how severely the infringers need to be punished. We cannot let the milking of freedom of expression go on endlessly.


One Response to “Milking the Freedom of Expression”

  1. Says:

    I am one of those who hold the view that there is only one kind of freedom – the absolute kind. Most people who write on this issue or hold opinions on the same are more or less aware of the whys and why nots. But India hardly cares for such discussions. Here, freedom is enforced or curtained at gun point and at the will of mobs assembled specifically for that purpose, the judicial process being largely irrelevant.

    The Taslima Nasreen and Sethusamudram issues have a religious angle to it (yet again). When words that show Muhammed or Ram in a bad light is blasphemy, how come religious books that can call followers of other religions or the non-religious everything from infidels to pagans to idol worshippers are not disrespectful to the latter group? Would exceptions then be made in such cases? And what about the works of Valmiki and Tagore themselves (Karunanidhi and Buddhadeb Bhattacharya have taken refuge under those two)? Is Valmiki being derogatory to a character that he himself created?

    As for ‘hurt sentiments’, it is a pile of rubbish. Tomorrow, I could start a religion with a donkey as my God and call for an immediate ban on ill treatment of all donkeys in the country and also demand that the word ‘donkey’ not be used in a derogatory sense. But that won’t happen. What Indian law and those in many countries seems to do is follow the law of numbers. If you are a significant enough group – minority or otherwise, you will be protected from your beliefs, ideas or image being attacked by someone. All others have to go from door to door to get access to basic rights. All in all, if Valmiki or Vyasa were to write the Ramayana or Mahabharata today, they would be lynched for being blasphemous – bigamy, polygamy, polyandry, wooing married women and what not. How dare they portray gods or god-like figures in such a manner? Freedom of expression, indeed.

    Then there is the case of the issue of ‘right’ being confused so as to muddy the waters. Take Bibek Debroy’s article and his example of the rights of a serial killer. A serial killer has no right to murder other people, without their consent. The qualification is because of extreme cases such as the German cannibal killer, where the victim was ‘willing’ (while the concept make make people uncomfortable, it has to be considered because it is perfect). In an ideal society, the man would not be jailed. Such a society would offer its citizens the right to do absolutely anything as long as it does not directly result in physical injury to an unconcerned party. This automatically makes any non-consensual physical act illegal, while leaving space for all acts that do have consent.

    If, as you say, a committee decides what a person can and cannot do or say or think, that is the end of freedom. Legally, an emergency can always be imposed and people can be jailed for saying anything that may not be in national interest. Where and how would you draw the line? If a government says that a citizen’s freedom has to be curbed so as to prevent a law and order situation, it is not practising law, but pitting one defenceless person against a mob. If that is all it can do, it loses its moral right to exist. But in the game of politics, morality is an unaffordable luxury, or penalty.

    Wait for six more months and you will find the same thing happening on some street in some corner of India, again. Change is the only constant, they say. They forgot an exception to that rule – India.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: