Is free speech an urban myth?


The year may be 2019, but some days it feels like we live in a largely Orwellian society. One of his most famous sayings is, “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear” – meaning, the essence of liberty is in being able to freely choose what to say even if it means contradicting the other. In light of several cases of sedition charges that have surfaced in India post-Independence, it is only apt that we discuss the limits of free speech in India – whether or not some of the cases have actually toed the fine line between criticism and seditious language.

Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code describes sedition as an offence when “whoever, by words, either spoken or written, or by signs, or by visible representation, or otherwise, brings or attempts to bring into hatred or contempt, or excites or attempts to excite disaffection towards the Government estab­lished by law in India.” It is a law to protect the citizens and the Government from secessionist and terrorist elements that jeopardise the nation, but its first major fault is that it is a colonial-era law. Apart from that, authorities have wielded its power unfairly and misused it to a point that the general public is scared to discuss politics outside of their homes.

According to the annual freedom report of Freedom House, a US-based watchdog NGO, India in 2018 was partly free. Now, the idea of India being a partly free state has been elucidated in an essay called ‘Eight Threats to Freedom of Expression in India’ by Ramachandra Guha (Democrats and Dissenters) where he discusses the boundaries of free speech and all the reasons that endanger it.

He writes, “Is India still a ‘50-50 democracy’, as I characterized it a decade ago? Societies and nations rarely, if ever, move in a linear fashion. There is progress in one sphere, regression in another. Compared to ten or twenty years ago, there is more freedom now for young (especially urban) Indians as regards their profession and their choice of marriage partners. Although caste and gender hierarchies still substantially exist, the ideologies that seek to justify them have noticeably lost influence. On the other hand, writers, artists and film-makers are probably less free, more vulnerable, than they have been at any time since the Emergency of 1975-77.”

Amongst the 49 authors of the letter to the PM that asked to take action against the mob lynchings and communal violence in the country, the writer himself was one of them. Soon after, the personalities were slapped with an FIR under state order, following a petition filed by an advocate from Muzzafarpur Mr Suhdir Kumar Ojha. An unsurprising move, really. The public wanted an answer and they did get one, albeit not from the PM. I like to believe that Mr Guha had anticipated this but still supported his stance.

If the reader does get a chance to read the letter sent to the Prime Minister, they must do so with care and ask themselves if at all it propagates an anti-nationalist agenda. Yet, in the rare chance that you may not, the following is a copy:

“We, as peace loving and proud Indians, are deeply concerned about a number of tragic events that have been happening in recent times in our beloved country.
Our Constitution describes India as a secular socialist democratic republic where citizens of all religions, ethnicities, gender and castes are equal. Hence, to ensure that every citizen enjoys the rights given to her/him by the Constitution, our submission is:

  1. The lynching of Muslims, Dalits and other minorities must be stopped immediately. We were shocked to learn from the NCRB (National Crime Records Bureau) reports that there have been no less than 840 instances of atrocities against Dalits in the year 2016, and a definite decline in the percentage of convictions.
    Further, 254 religious identity-based hate crimes were reported between January 1, 2009, and October 29, 2018, where at least 91 persons were killed and 579 were injured ( database, October 30, 2018). The Citizen’s Religious Hate-Crime Watch recorded that Muslims, (14% of India’s population) were the victims in 62% for cases, and Christians (2% of the population), in 14% cases. About 90% of these attacks were reported after May 2014, when your Government assumed power nationally.
    You have criticized such lynchings in Parliament Mr. Prime Minister, but that is not enough! What action has actually been taken against the perpetrators? We strongly feel that such offences should be declared non-bailable, and that exemplary punishment should be meted out swiftly and surely. If life imprisonment without parole can be the sentence in cases of murder, why not for lynchings, which are even more heinous? No citizen should have to live in fear in his/her own country!
    Regrettably “Jai Sri Ram” has become a provocative ‘war-cry’ today that leads to law and order problems, and many lynchings take place in its name. It is shocking to see so much violence perpetrated in the name of religion! These are not the Middle Ages! The name of Ram is sacred to many in the majority community of India. As the highest Executive of this country, you must put a stop to the name of Ram being defiled in this manner.”
    With regard to the sedition charges against the writers of the letter, Shashi Tharoor, Congress MP wrote another letter to the PM, asking to retract the FIR and acknowledge the communal violence fast-spreading in the country.

Only yesterday, a man named Hafeez and two of his brothers were booked under 4 sections of the IPC because the former had shot a monkey. Now the shooting isn’t the problem, it is the idea that the resident Hindus believed in – that it was done intentionally to hurt religious sentiments. It doesn’t seem wrong to say that at this point in time, people jump to conclusions quicker than political parties and their followers change loyalties.

In school, we are taught that freedom of speech is one of our fundamental rights yet we aren’t told how nonchalantly authorities could take away that liberty if need be. It may be mentioned here that the reasonable restrictions under Article 19(1)(a) state, that unless there is a threat to the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency and morality, contempt of court, defamation, incitement to an offence, and sovereignty and integrity of India, you are free to express your thoughts as you wish. But how is it that FIRs are still being lodged for pointing out the truth and asking for due attention to the crimes against minorities or the brazen tagging of people who question the authority as “anti-nationalist”?

People both young and old, who post stories highlighting Kashmir’s dismal situation (till date, it has been 65 days of lockdown) or condemning violence against minorities, are met with staunch right-wing nationalists in their inbox to ask, “why are you trying to defame the PM/country?”

The answer is simple – no, we aren’t. What we do, is make use of a right granted to us by the Constitution of India, the same law that the other party themselves use to send hate mail and death threats. What harms the country and its people more? Discussing the ugly ground reality on a public platform, addressing pressing problems in a well-written letter to the PM or forcing a citizen to chant “Jai Shree Ram” thus violating their fundamental rights?

I have written this article and will write others with the power given to me by Article 19(1)(a), but each time one goes public, a certain unease sets in – I am afraid to be called something I am not. When will we hold the inciters of violence accountable for their crimes instead of focusing on people who only try to reveal the disarray of state and nation? If we are to speak, let us speak freely without anxiety or else, render us mute for once and for all.

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