To determine the true rulers of any society, all you must do is ask yourself this question: Who is it that I am not permitted to criticize?
The quote attributed to Voltaire – white people’s Rumi – was made by an American white supremacist paedophile named Kevin Alfred Strom and is particularly pertinent in India, a land where people’s understanding of freedom of expression extends to mouthing a quote mis-attributed to the French author.
Who are we not allowed to criticise?
While those of a liberal persuasion might claim Narendra Modi, and those from the opposite end of the spectrum will say Sonia Gandhi, the correct answer is – no one.
We have the right to criticise, pan, ridicule or mock anything. The list includes DJs, lawyers, works of art, books, movies, politicians, godmen, religious figures and even cartoon characters.
However, we don’t have the right to our freedom after said speech.
The right to free speech is entwined into America with the First Amendment which clearly states that Congress can make no law ‘prohibiting and exhibiting free speech’.
On the other hand, India’s first Amendment, made by liberal memeplex god Pandit Nehru added ‘reasonable restrictions’ to the mix to ensure that the people of the newly sovereign nation would never really have freedom of speech (FOS) or freedom of expression (FOE).
It was compounded by a host of other statutes which makes India one of the few countries to have what are de facto blasphemy laws which makes keeping one’s trap shut the modus vivendi for those with no political connections.
India – no country for Free Speech
Combine that with an ill-informed police force, a population that likes knee-jerk reactions and the fact that it’s easier to file a complaint for ‘hurt sentiments’ than it’s to file a complaint accusing someone of sexual abuse and you know India is a dystopia vis-à-vis FOS.
As JNU professor, TV raconteur and Grand Thread Master Anand Ranganathan likes to point out, the only reason we are not in jail is because the state has decided we don’t need to be in jail.
What’s fascinating is that we waste aeons of space on print, television and online media discussing it when the lay of the land and law makes it almost impossible to have any modicum of FOE.
Recently, it became a discussion because a gaggle of English stand-up comedians, who used to get their jollies by mocking Veer Savarkar, deleted their old tweets and started apologising for ‘hurting sentiments’.
Comedians under fire
It’s not strange to see comedians apologising even before an FIR is filed, after all Camus did note that Galileo abjured a scientific truth with the greatest of ease as soon as it threatened his life, it’s strange that they are doing so in a state which isn’t run by the BJP.
The comedians’ volte-face was blamed upon the IT Cell – an organisation which in popular imagination appears to make Voldemort’s Death Eaters look like the Goony Squad – even though most of them are housed in a state with a so-called ‘secular’ government.
We can never have a truly honest debate about free speech until we get past our Panglossian-Kafkaesque didactic about Modi and the BJP.
FOS – democratised data vs wonky laws
In a way, FOS has never had it better or worse.
The democratisation of data thanks to Mukeshbhai means that now every individual can voice his or her opinion.
However, the existence of this information highway means that anyone’s opinion can also get them in trouble, thanks to a spate of wonky laws, including cyber ones that exist to make even the innocuous tweet look offensive.
And not even their own, as Hardik Pandya found out when an FIR was filed against him for a tweet by a parody account.
IT Cells of various political parties and PETA India might be proficient at hunting down those it disagrees with on Twitter, but that’s not really the crux of India’s free speech debate.
The clampdown on FOS is aided and abetted by a host of bad laws and an eager set of politicos and activists always willing to please their king.
A recent example was an overeager Yuva Sena lawyer filing a complaint against a Twitter user for disparaging remarks against Aaditya Thackeray and other leaders which included the term ‘Baby Penguin’.
While Sena learnt about the Streisand Effect the hard way, it was a reminder that no political party in India – national or regional – supports freedom of speech and expression.
The Supreme Court of India - while on one hand saying that dissent was necessary - recently accepted a badly-worded, legally unsound, randomly upper-cased PIL against Prashant Bhushan for his tweets!
The Delhi Police recently added UAPA charges against an environmental website Friday For Future’s India chapter for spamming Prakash Javadekar’s email!
As annoying as Greta Thunberg is, a law used against terror suspects to silence tree-huggers is a bit much.
States vs Free Speech
Yogi Adityanath will throw you in jail for ‘defamatory content’.
A joke about the Sun Temple will get Naveen Patnaik to send the Odisha police to pick you up from Delhi. And a former CJI will say jail is the ‘safest place for you’.
Vijay Rupani can file a sedition case against you for reporting.
Sarbananda Sonowal will send the cops to pick you up for your tweets.
YS Reddy wants Andhra secretaries to be able to sue media for any criticism ‘citing’ fake news.
Bihar went a step further and in Lalu’s time, one simply shot dead offending journalists.
Let’s not even get started on Jammu and Kashmir where press freedom has been as non-existent as any realistic chance of Kashmir ceding from the Indian state.
A 19-year-old spent 110 days in jail for muttering the words ‘Hindustan Zindabad, Pakistan Zindabad’ during an Owaisi rally.
Media – what’s free speech?
The Fourth Estate, supposedly the ones tasked with holding up this basic right is an equally bad player. While ads and political compunctions have often helped curtail news pieces, a leading media organisation went a step further by suspending a journalist for a tweet about a Hindu deity.
The Editor’s Guild is routinely accused of only speaking up for elite journalists.
For example, the guild hasn’t said a word about two Arambagh TV journalists being arrested in Bengal by the Mamata government. Paradoxically, it’s the BJP making some noise for them reminding us that political parties only remember the right to FOS when in Opposition.
A few years ago, a mainstream journalist was trolled for asking: “Who’s Kamlesh Tiwari?”
That’s because a placard-holding photogenic Delhi girl looks far better under the studio lights than a saffron-clad man from Uttar Pradesh who spent a year in jail under draconian laws for ‘insulting’ the Prophet. He eventually paid for that expression with his life when he his throat was slit by two Muslim assailants.
Interestingly, his comments had come after the late Arun Jaitley had backed LGBT rights and criticised the SC for upholding Section 377, which had led Azam Khan to make homophobic remarks at the RSS.
Intellectual debate on free speech in India involves four dudes who come on each other’s podcast and Justice Marakandey Katju who keeps begging everyone to read his blogs.
The truth is that every political party in this country loves how it can use the state machinery to clamp down on dissent.
Collective Morality vs Individual Rights
And it’s helped by the fact that Indians tend to value collective morality over individual rights.
Indians can barely differentiate between hate speech and free speech.
Some on the right try to equate hate and rape threats with free speech. Others, try to couch free speech with the ultimate rejoinder, 'I support free speech but he shouldn’t have joked about that'. Neither those claiming to be liberals nor those who are conservatives have any desire to uphold free speech.
Section 295 A is practically an anti-blasphemy law and is used as such in Myanmar and Pakistan. In India, it goes by another name but is a very vague tool which the state can use whenever it desires.
All this makes for very disappointing reading given India is home to one of the oldest civilisations in the world, which was grounded in free speech and a culture which was built on guru-shishya parampara which included critical thinking and questioning.
One of Hinduism’s greatest treatises comes from a warrior facing an existential crisis during the heat of battle and questioning the meaning of life and all existence, why he should kill his brothers-in-arms.
The debate led to one of the most remarkable pieces of literature that exists, that even an atheist can admire for its attempt to understand life and give meaning to it.
Imagine if Arjun didn’t ask questions. Because that’s the world we create when we don’t criticise or question things.
To quote Lord K: “Those situated in the mode of goodness gradually go upward to the higher planets; those in the mode of passion live on the earthly planets; and those in the mode of ignorance go down to the hellish worlds.”Into that hellish world of ignorance, we’ve let our country awake.
The author is the Web Editor of The Free Press Journal and tweets at @nirmalyadutta23.
The views expressed are personal.