Bidding Adieu to Free Speech

Future of free speech in ‘world’s largest democracy’ seems rather bleak. I say this with profound sense of despondency, as I feel that unless the recent wrongs committed against genuine dissenters, academics and non- conformists (for. e.g. Kanhaiya Kumar, Umar Kalid, Anirban Bhattacharya, Binayak Sen, Soni Sori, Aseem Trivedi, Ashish Nandy, Jitendra Bhargava, Wendy Doniger, James Laine etc. to name a few) are undone, the hallowed constitutional right of freedom of speech shall witness a silent burial in the not too distant future.

Free speech in India is under siege from multiple quarters, that is to say both State and non state actors must share the blame for significantly eroding and circumscribing this sacrosanct right, considered fundamental for any vibrant and genuine democracy. They seem to have launched a no holds barred crusade against free speech, under the false pretence and specious arguments of protecting national interest and security and preserving the traditional values of our great nation.

The power wielders in India have of late been castigated for frivolous invocation of penal provisions like Section 124A, 292 and 295A of Indian Penal Code to punish and vilify bonafide dissenters and non- conformists, who dare to express contrarian views. This brazen misuse of penal provisions is rather reflective of the growing paranoia that our rulers have of any new thought that could disturb the status quo. The reprehensible treatment meted out to academicians, writers, cartoonists, whistleblowers etc. by setting in motion of the ‘coercive machinery of criminal law’ on ‘flimsy and tenuous statutory interpretations by the police’ is deeply agonizing and highly perturbing. The State authorities should ideally be defenders of liberal values and not its inveterate enemies. They should wake up to the contemporary reality that these penal provisions are an imperial legacy and hence anachronistic and vestigial in any modern, progressive society. These provisions ought to be scrapped off at the earliest as they serve no purpose in the statute book of a country which proclaims itself to be the standard bearer of democratic values. Further the power wielders should shed their insecurities and grasp the truth stated by Harrington in his classic work ‘Oceana’, where he says that “a good government has nothing to fear from a paper shot”. The rulers should be happy and not morose to see the intellectual development of the populace whom they govern. Montesquieu once wrote, “In a free nation it matters not whether individual reason well or ill; it is sufficient that they do reason. Truth arises from collision and from hence springs liberty, which is security from the effect of reasoning.” Unintelligent and whimsical invocation of penal provisions is anathema to this liberty and must thus be eschewed. Also, the power wielders and law enforcers should carefully read the defence speech of Lord Henry Erskine before the House of Lords during the trial of Thomas Paine, the writer of the ‘Declaration of the Rights of Man’, before invoking the penal provisions randomly, as unnecessary litigation has a chilling effect on free speech. Lord Erskine quoted a poet who wrote:

“Be to their faults a little blind,

Be to their virtues very kind,

Let all their thoughts be unconfined,

And clap your padlock on the mind.”

These lines are of great contemporary relevance and should never be lost sight of.              

However the state machinery isn’t the only threat to free speech. The civil society must share equal if not more culpability for the increasing vulnerability of the right to free speech. Private censorship is as ominous for free speech as public censorship, as it goes a long way in disincentivising writers from freely expressing their views so as to escape unnecessary legal proceedings that maybe initiated against them. The self professed ‘book policemen’ and other defenders of traditional values must realize that they have no monopoly over truth. If they find it hard to accept the ideas of writers and academicians, they should try to come up with better arguments and ideas, and not rely on ignominious techniques like filing civil and criminal cases unnecessarily. The recent campaign launched by Dinanath Batra against the books written by Wendy Doniger, an Indologist of international repute and the Penguin’s subsequent kowtowing before him, rings a death knell for independent and innovative scholarly work. What the likes of Dinanath Batra fail to realize is, is that they are doing a great disservice to the Indian nation which has had a history of tolerance. (Some of the greatest Indians like Akbar, Mahatma Gandhi, Rabindranath Tagore, Nehru have been very accommodative of dissenting opinions. Even the great religious leader, Shankaracharya conceded defeat before the equally great woman scholar, Bharati, thereby acknowledging the strength of her innovative arguments).

As a concluding remark, I reiterate that the underlying threat to free speech in India in recent times comes from the insidious culture of intolerance that is spreading at a menacing rate in India. It is disturbing to see that ‘new era Indians’ have an increasing propensity to get offended by anything and everything, no matter how trivial it may appear to an objective onlooker. Till the time we as a community make a collective effort to raise our threshold of tolerance, there is no hope of redeeming the cherished right of free speech. A collective realization needs to dawn on the Indian society (comprising of both the rulers and the ruled), that dissenting voices aren’t to be stifled but rather encouraged as history is replete with instances which show that new thoughts have led to civilizational progress and guarded against intellectual atrophy of nations. The enemies of free speech might have recently won a few battles but let us all make a resolve that we shall never let them win the war! Long live free speech in India!!!!

Harshita Vatsayan
Trainee DJS Officer
Delhi Judicial Academy


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