Free Press Journal

Free speech means right to dissent


TOPSHOT - Kashmiri protestors clash with Indian police in Srinagar on July 10, 2016. The death toll from unrest in Indian-administered Kashmir climbed to 15 July 10, officials said, despite authorities imposing a harsher curfew on the restive territory in a bid to prevent new demonstrations. One protestor was killed on July 10 when government forces fired on angry residents who defied the restrictions in the southern Pulwama area, and six died in different hospitals overnight after suffering gunshot wounds on July 9, a police officer said, speaking on condition of anonymity. / AFP PHOTO / TAUSEEF MUSTAFA

FREEDOM of expression is the most Indian of values which was staunchly defended by Lord Brahma himself in the Natya Shastra.

The right to dissent is a part and parcel of the right to freedom of speech and expression. What students of the Pondicherry Central University (PCU) may publish is definitely unpalatable to the BJP and the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) which is the student wing of the BJP and has the RSS as its mentor. For nationalism is not the monopoly of any single political party or organisation because unless proved otherwise, all Indians love their country.

Freedom of expression is the most Indian of values which was staunchly defended by Lord Brahma himself in the Natya Shastra. In ancient India one was free to create various versions of epics like the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. One could even be an atheist or practice rituals like ritual sex which communities like the Aghoras did. The Rig Veda stated: Ekam Sat Vipraha Bahuda Vadanti. Truth is one, but the wise speak it in different ways.

The magazine Widerstand (meaning resistance in German) was burnt outside the gates of the PCU in a sit-in organised by the BJP. The magazine was banned less than a week since its launch allegedly as a  result of a conflict with local BJP and ABVP units who found the content of the magazine being ‘critical’ of the government. An ABVP activist alleged that the magazine was “anti-national” although the university authorities were blissfully unaware of its contents. Their shenanigans are violative of Rig Vedic maxims which propagate free speech.

The BJP and ABVP apparently equate criticism of the ruling BJP government with sedition, not realising that Mahatma Gandhi was tried for sedition on the same charge. Hence, by issuing a show-cause notice to the editor of the student’s magazine and locking up the room where 4,000 copies were kept, the vice chancellor is proving he is acting at the behest of the Union human resource development ministry from which Smriti Irani was shunted. Ministers may change but policies do not. While the content of the magazine is not available, it appears that the articles were highly critical of the Centre and the BJP.

While criticism of any government is vital for a democracy to survive, this can never include the right to advocate secession of any state from the Indian union which was why Article 19 (2) was amended by Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru in 1951 to include “security of the state” within the ambit of prohibited speech. Nehru amended the Constitution to abrogate a Supreme Court judgement which struck down a government ban on circulation of the Leftist journal Cross Roads. Nehru, like the BJP-RSS combine was acting against Rig Vedic exhortations.

To cite another example, Kashmir is and has always been an integral part of India and will continue to do so. But an editorial in a leading national daily argued for the right to self-determination of Kashmiris. The editorial was written by a reputed humour writer who perhaps may be more at home evoking laughter with his pieces than for serious debate. Law and language are not synonymous. Strangely, the BJP-RSS combine have ignored such editorials perhaps because they find students’ magazines easier prey to ban and burn than mainline national newspapers.

A suppressed media is inversely proportional to economic growth, religious tolerance, a strong rupee and job availability. When there is a rise in religious intolerance within India, FDI will slow down, reducing economic growth rate and weakening the rupee, making imports more expensive. It is then that a government seeks to suppress freedom of the press and throttle the right to know which is what successive military governments in Pakistan have done.

The Congress has accused the BJP in Parliament of weakening the Right to Information Act, 2005 (RTI) by not appointing a Chief Information Commissioner (CIC). After he was appointed, the CIC curtailed the number of appeals for disposal by demanding an identity proof although the government had earlier clarified that this was not necessary.

The CIC has quoted a Punjab and Haryana high court judgment to demand identity proof, thereby indirectly diluting the RTI by throwing out the appeals at the entry point. Interpretations are subjective and change with judges and CICs. What do not change are the sections of the RTI unless amended by the BJP which has an absolute majority. Till now, the RTI has not been touched.

Like the CIC, the Modi government has appointed RSS sympathisers to prominent positions in policy-implementing organisations. This includes the chairman of the Film and Television Institute of India, the chairman of the Indian Council of Historical Research and a board member of the Securities and Exchange Board of India. For the glorious days of Hindu civilisation which included flights to distant planets and aeroplanes which could fly backwards and even sideways are ideas which the ruling party exercises in its right to freedom of speech and expression to create a distorted history out of mythology.