It cannot get starker than this. Non-bailable warrants are issued against eminent sociologist Ashis Nandy and, by vicarious extension, JLF producer Sanjoy Roy for a badly worded phrase; Kamal Haasan’s film is turned into a football; and Salman Rushdie is prevented from going to West Bengal. Behind them marches a long list of the bruised, the silenced and the banned: Deepa Mehta, Taslima Nasreen, Rohinton Mistry, James Laine, MF Husain, Aamir Khan, Habib Tanveer, DN Jha, bewildered professors, cartoonists, young girls, and hosts of others.
The growing assault on free speech cannot be overstated. For every high-profile case discussed, there’s a massive penumbral impact going unnoticed: people are cautioning themselves to become more careful of what they say or think: an immeasurable degree of self-censorship is kicking in. Here’s just one telling detail: festival producers are increasingly being forced by the police to sign documents undertaking no speaker will say anything to hurt anyone’s sentiments. The country’s art galleries are voluntarily following suit. Politicians, of course, are always eager to embrace this lazy and elastic position: I staunchly believe in the freedom of speech as long as no one hurts anyone else’s sentiments.
The tyranny of “hurt sentiments” has always dogged our society. But the speed and ubiquitousness of the media has magnified this in disturbing ways. Forget the possibility of genuinely disruptive art. There is almost no space (or forgiveness) now for even an imprecise line or half-baked thought. Nothing captures this bathos better than the Nandy incident. In the course of a larger argument, an academic with 30 years of scholarship on the underclasses, formulates a clumsy line at a literature fest. It’s instantly plucked out of context and misreported in the media. No one stops to ask why he’d make a remark so out of character, or what the context was. The informal ease of the adda morphs dizzyingly into the glare of the public square. In minutes, his history is shorn from him. He becomes a casteist taunter. No one knows the real story, but everyone asks for arrests.
But the media — and the tornados it’s capable of — is merely a symptom. The real assaults on free speech lie elsewhere. Ironically, the keenest danger lies in our Constitution itself.
ARTICLE 19 (A) of the Constitution enshrines our right to free speech. But Article 19.2 restricts it on the grounds of public order, morality and decency, security of the State, sedition, friendly relations with foreign countries, defamation, contempt of court and incitement to an offence. Unfortunately, these clauses are very loosely worded and have become a baggy hideout for weak governments. If we are to preserve our precious right to freedom of speech, then, we must debate 19.2 and narrow its meaning more precisely. Or insist governments emerge from its shadows.
Every assault on free speech today comes in depressing and predictable combinations. Some slice of a community somewhere claims a “hurt sentiment”. With an eye on electoral gain, governments across the political spectrum immediately invoke a “potential law and order situation” and capitulate. Ordinarily, the rules of this should be self-evident. In a country of a billion plus, one citizen’s freedom is bound to be another’s hurt. But in a democracy, both hurt and protest ought to be expressed peacefully; intellectual disagreements ought to be fought intellectually; and peaceful offenders isolated through force of public opinion. Most crucially, governments ought to be able to maintain law and order rather than constantly fear its imminent breakdown. But none of this is in evidence. Not one political party or government ever shows greater allegiance to Article 19 (a) than 19.2.
If we don’t want our society to be reduced to robotic dumbness, it’s imperative we shift the rules of the game now and drive some stakes in against humbug and bigotry. First, we must reclaim our right to offend. What can freedom of speech possibly mean without an attendant freedom to create discomfort? Free speech should be restricted only if it incites violence, urges discrimination, or is demonstrably defamatory. Clearly, speech can also be restricted if it urges a violation of other fundamental rights — for instance, the equal right of all Indian citizens to have access to justice, opportunity to work, travel within the country, worship peacefully, etc.
Other than that, it’s time we swallowed some confidence pills and sharpened our wits rather than wallowed in petulance. And leave our various gods to defend themselves.