India is a democratic nation. Free speech is the part and parcel of a vibrant economy. In a social fabric like ours, free speech is guaranteed in the constitution, although, with a multitude of limitations. Our constitutional framers included it in Article 19. However, this has been challenged on many occasions.
But not until late, free speech has been constantly denied to citizens, based on archaic laws.
This freedom and its loopholes are weaponized, at many instances, to fuel animosity against the minorities.
This doesn’t end here. Some self-proclaimed gatekeepers who held high regard for free speech, at times, have failed to protect it.
When fundamentalists attacked Charlie Hebdo, a satirical magazine, claiming the lives of 12 people, it rekindled the tolerance debates across the globe. Nazi elements demonstrated against the Islamization of Europe. Mosques were torched. Synagogues pelted. Anti-Semitism peaked
Speaking after this event, Nasser Lajili, a French city councillor was quoted saying: “.. freedom of speech needs to stop when it harms the dignity of somebody else.” All the nations condemned the acts of brutal terror. David Cameron, the British PM, on the same lines, pushed for more surveillance and interception.
This was akin to the reaction when free speech martyr, Theo Van Gogh, 47, the great-grandson of art dealer Theo Van Gogh and great grandnephew of the famed Dutch painter Vincent Van Gogh was assaulted and killed in a most inhumane way. The assailant, later identified as Mohammed Bouyeri, a radical Muslim extremist was sentenced to life imprisonment without parole, the most severe punishment under the Dutch Law.
Recently, in Saudi Arabia, where medieval practices like stoning people to death, amputation for minor crimes are common; a blogger, Raif Badawi, was sentenced to 1,000 lashes because he promoted secularism. His crime was to moderate a blog, Free Saudi Liberals.
In all these cases, it is their derogatory portrayal of Islam and the Prophet, which the Muslims claimed to be blasphemous, that triggered the desire for vengeance.
It is also important to note that major world powers such as US, India are close allies with Saudi Arabia. But these have never condemned these atrocities against liberty. Clearly, the reason is Saudi sits on huge reserves of oil and natural gas; essential for the existence of economies.
All you need is oil and a little help from your friends; a tyrannous monarchy can be made to look like a peaceful nation.
And on this secular front, we don’t lag behind. We claim ourselves to be a free, open-minded nation, just like the rest, but the ratings say otherwise. According to the survey conducted by Reporters Without Borders, India ranks at 140th position in the World’s Press Freedom Index, where even the most chaotic places like Palestine, Haiti are placed above us.
In India, the constitution grants only near-absolute freedom with restrictions, which, as a result, has increased the number of cases filed against the patrons and publishers of offensive material.
These cultural vigilantes have always suppressed the idea of the plural society. In the 80’s, Rajiv Gandhi’s appeasement of minorities prompted the import ban of “The Satanic Verses” by Salman Rushdie. He was previously threatened by Indira Gandhi, the then incumbent PM, for her negative portrayal in his book “Midnight’s Children.”
Last year, a man objected to the contents of the book written by Wendy Doniger titled “The Hindus: An Alternative History.” In an agreement with the objection, the publishers, in defiance of press freedom or the involvement of judiciary decide to pulp all the existing copies.
The latest victim is the Tamil writer Perumal Murugan. The right-wing Hindu groups and RSS leaders had called for the ban of his book “One Part Woman” in its present form. The offence: the author’s portrayal of an ancient ritual which involved consensual sex between anonymous men and married woman who had failed to conceive.
At every instance, freedom of speech in India has staunchly followed the Hobson’s Choice- a choice between what is available and nothing.
But in stark contrast, last month a Hindi Film, “PK”, ran successfully across the country, concurrently with erupting violence against its portrayal of religions. The right-wing groups specifically targeted Aamir Khan, a Muslim – who mocked the customs of religions, including the Hindus.
Cases were filed, courts moved. But the response was applauded by the liberals. In response to a public-interest petition, the Delhi High Court said, “The Constitution protects the rights of the artist to portray social reality in all its forms.
“Yeha pe sab kuch chalta hai,” is the most popular catchphrase in India, but does it, really?