The month of February 2016 will be scripted down in the history books (of India) as one of the fieriest months ever where a lot happened in the name of ‘freedom of speech’. Allegations followed counter allegations and opinions followed debates and the entire nation was divided in two primary segments- nationalists and the anti-nationalists. Events turned ugly and the Central government came under the hammer for allegedly obstructing ‘freedom of speech’- which is recognised as basic human right by the Constitution of Indian under Article 19.
As per the power provided by this article, Indians have the right to express without hampering the sentiments of others or without posing a threat to the Indian judiciary and to the unity of India. Freedom of speech also doesn’t allow anyone to obstruct or suppress others’ right to express or threaten their life and property in some way. In a nutshell, freedom of speech tries to bridge various opinions into one unanimous consensus…
February this year saw some unprecedented and high voltage protests across the nation, which alleged the government of obstructing ones rights to express freely and uphold ones view without fear. On February 9, a group of students from the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi, gathered for a meeting and it was alleged that they raised slogans like Afzal Hum Sharminda Hain, Tere Qatil Zinda Hain and Bharat Teri Barbadi Tak Jung Zari Rahegi, Inshahallah Inshahallah Inshahallah. Even though it is not yet clear if these slogans were actually raised (the video on the basis of which the claim was made was declared doctored later), but it saw the nation divide in two groups- one opposing such slogans and the other supporting the same in the name of freedom of speech.
“Afzal Guru’s involvement in the Parliament attack is doubtful,” was said by MA Chidambaran, former Union Minister, in a press conference and this further got things to worsen.
“Being at the ministry I was unable to speak then, but now I can,” the former Finance Minister further added which opened up the Pandora’s box and questions were raised as what use of this freedom of expression if one cannot speak at a time when it was required?
Before taking a dig ahead, let us go back to time and see as what actually led to the question on right to expression being obstructed? Afzal Guru was a Kashmiri separatist leader who raged a war against the Indian Constitution demanding freedom for Jammu & Kashmir. For the 2001 Parliament Attack he was found guilty by the Supreme Court of India and was hanged to death on 2013. Since then, time and again, his death has been condemned by those groups of individuals who believe that Guru was not guilty and JNU is one such place where slogans in support of Guru have been raised since his execution.
“February 9 event was nothing new in the campus as events like this are too common here. It was only this time that police was called in and the JNU Students’ Union (JNUSU) leaders were arrested and sedition charges were levelled against them,” Ananya, a master degree media student, said during a candid chit-chat.
“There is nothing wrong to say Pakistan Zindabad as it necessarily doesn’t bring down a threat to our integrity,” she had added.
Repercussions of the arrests of JNUSU leaders were felt across the country and at several places rallies were taken out against the government for it ‘obstructed freedom of speech’ of individuals. Things turned ugly only then when debates on right to expression and the subsequent use of ‘suppressive force’ against it hogged the television limelight for days and weeks. Division came among the journalistic fraternity as well with one group favouring the government actions and the other opposing it. And amidst all rose a question- in a democracy shall the freedom of speech be curtailed to a certain extent?
For any direct like-minded and level headed individual, the answer is a simple ‘no’ but the events of past few weeks have made some to think in the other way.
“Government cannot impose on freedom of speech and curtailing it out of question. In a democracy, there needs to be opinions and counter opinions and there should be tolerant listening. If force is used and we are not allowed to express, then it cannot be called as democracy as then it will be a failed democracy,” Nayan Jyoti Medhi, an upcoming media professional, said while expressing his views on the topic.
“But yes, the government can certainly put certain guidelines at times of urgency or emergency so that there is no threat of any form whatsoever. Section 144 of the CrPC is one such imposition which comes handy on several occasions,” Medhi further said, adding, “But there can be no question of curtailing our right to expression. What happened in JNU is actually of no real face value but since the entire event is politically orchestrated and backed by the media, questions like these are raised. For me, JNU event is no news at all.”
Young politician and film producer Luit Kumar Barman is of the view that there cannot be a question of curtailing freedom of speech- partially or fully since democracy is of the people, by the people and for the people.
“Our speech will let the politicians think and they will know as what people want. Unless we speak, how will the government know as what we want?” Barman said, adding, “There is an existing law and it will decide whether to punish or not a particular person who takes undue advantage of freedom of speech.”
If we look closely into our history, we will find that the questions like ‘threat to freedom of speech’ have risen previously as well- especially during the 21-month emergency period from 1975-77. Even the press was not free then and anything written (for or against the government) was first checked and passed by the government officials.
“If we have to compare situations now and situations of 1975, then I would say that as alleged by many, there has been no attack on our freedom of expression. One 28-year-old student, takes the centre stage and call of India’s division in no way be considered as a mere right to express. His speech has motivated 100 others and these 100 will motivate 10000 others and this way the chain will increase and one fine day we might not have a democracy as well. It is for the right to freedom of expression that student leaders after getting bail from jail can freely attack the Prime Minister and still breath free. Right to expression doesn’t mean to oppose every time but sadly, in the current time, you express only to oppose,” said an (Assam) Congress insider seeking anonymity.
“Right to expression is like driving a car. I can drive at 140 km/hr and also at 50 km/hr. Point is, at what speed am I safe and also not posing a threat to others. Or else, I can drive at any speed,” he concluded.
Right to expression comes with no boundary and we can speak whatever we want to- but before we speak we must mark and chose our words carefully. We don’t call a physically challenged person by name in front of him as it might hurt his sentiments, in the same way we cannot speak whatever we want as we have the right to expression. Freedom of expression is a sharp tool, which if used wisely can yield gold and if adversely can destroy kingdoms.
PS: The commoner however is least bothered as what transpired in JNU or if our freedom of speech is seriously under threat. For them, everything is normal and rest is only for the elites who have times galore to spend just on thinking and speaking and not working.