Saturday, February 15, 2014

That Elusive Freedom of Expression

That Elusive Freedom of Expression.

I am sure that everyone by now would have read the news about the Publishing house Penguin withdrawing a book because they wanted to avoid the hassles of legal complications. And if you open the morning papers you can read the news about groups of self appointed culture guardians shaming couples who were indulging in a little PDA on Valentine’s Day. If you switch on the TV you can see the regularly roaring TV anchors mewling like pet cats when it comes to political interviews of future prime ministers. Even on the sports channels you can see that fearless batsmen of yesteryear's are now turned gentle spin-specialists when it comes to speaking the truth about the powers that be which run the sport – even after they have been caught red handed flouting all the rules. Everywhere you look there seems to be a general dumbing-down of criticism and comments. Self censorship has become ubiquitous. And free speech has been sacrificed at the altar of safety and political correctness.

The situation is such that not only free speech people are even afraid of free thinking and prefer to go along with the crowd. And for every such act of conformity the blame is laid on the archaic laws of the Indian Penal Code and the Defamation clause 294-A. If the courts don’t support us when we speak our minds then why should we risk our necks by speaking the truth seems to be the general excuse of people who should know better. So is it true that all the blame for this assault on free thought and speech in modern India lies on our laws? Is there no more a culture of encouraging free speech in our country?  

Any story about the freedom of speech has to start with the British rule in India. The British who ruled India for around two centuries were the first to systematically suppress free speech among the native populace. They did it because they were afraid that a free press would undermine their rule over the natives by pointing out its illegitimacy and oppressiveness. Media spin was its highest when in the accounts of the Sepoy mutiny the news about the starvation of Englishmen and women were widely reported while the systematic decimation and depopulation of entire native Indian populations in savage reprisals were never mentioned at all in the popular press (British owned and published) of the time. Any attempt by the Indians to tell their side of the story was ruthlessly suppressed with laws and laws and many more laws which made free speech a luxury unaffordable. What the British could not achieve by violence they often achieved by enacting laws and saying they were just following the rule of law and anyone who broke such laws was an anarchist and instigator of violence. Seems familiar?

It was indeed ironic that when such savage attacks on the vernacular press was going on in India; at the same time the British press at home was a vociferous supporter of free speech and often took liberties which would have fetched immediate transport to the Cellular Jail in the Andaman Islands if tried out in India by Indians. The Englishman then as now was always the epitome of hypocrisy, preaching what he never practiced which does raise the question of how the Americans can be so different, honest and forthright, when they came from the same stock basically. But that’s digressing from our topic, so back to freedom of speech.

When the British finally left us and we got our independence from them, the founding fathers of our republic, stalwart leaders who had seen first-hand the need for a strong law to protect our freedom of speech included the right to free speech in the fundamental rights guaranteed to every citizen, of course with certain exceptions for the rarest of rare cases. But politics being what it is, very soon the politicians who ruled us realized that free speech was antagonistic to their continued well-being and used those rare exceptions commonly to assault our freedom till every single free newspaper and independent media started towing the establishments’ line. But things didn’t stop with that.

As our republic matured we began to see more and more attacks on our freedom with the difference that instead of free speech there were now gags on even free thought. Any citizen who expressed what was on his mind was expected to face the music which had the natural effect of damping free thought among the general populace. The few people brave enough or stupid enough to go against such restrictive rules were hounded in courts with multiple cases filed against them for hurting the sentiments of this or that group. If you write about the Prophet the Muslims are offended. If you write about the Hindu gods then the Hindus are offended. You call a poet or a film maker as not worthy of praise then his or her state mates are offended. Hell, you don’t need to talk about anyone else but just celebrate Valentine’s Day, everyone around you is offended. And they just have to file a complaint at the local police station, to have the police arrest you immediately, have the media sensationalize your arrest and finally make you spend years and years living in the courts fighting the cases filed against you.

This getting offended and feigning thin skin kind of legal approaches which are now routinely being supported by the courts has had the unfortunate effect of playing right into the hands of the extremists and narrow parochial interests (with venal politicians behind them at every instance) who exploit laws made for genuine reasons to achieve their base interests. The situation has deteriorated even more with the explosion of social media- after the Facebook status arrests and Twitter trolls attacks people are even afraid to express their minds on-line for fear of being arrested at midnight by the police force which has nothing else to do in a land where murderers and rapists walk around in broad daylight with impunity.

All of this begs the question - are we really a free nation now? When the people have no choice to speak or even think for themselves do we really deserve the right to call ourselves free? If every two-bit political group can claim hurt interests can the courts continue to support them and punish free citizens? Is the freedom to think for ourselves disappearing completely from our society? Is being politically correct all the time the only way to save our skins? I don’t know the answers to any of these questions. But I am both angry and scared that I live in a country where my thoughts have to be automatically censored to avoid being bodily harmed by ruffians and rowdies who don’t think the same way as I do.

And to have all this supported by the courts (and the authority of the law) which instead of guaranteeing free speech for every citizen is automatically taking the side of the lumpen elements is more and more scary. I have heard of the term banana republic (places where people can be hung by mobs for uttering the wrong word) before and I am afraid I am seeing one being formed right before my eyes. I grieve for my nation, for its lost ideals and disappearing freedoms. And I am angry at the judges, courts and laws for supporting this assault on free speech and free thought. When will the law stand up for the rights of the common man? Whither my country?

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