Speak now or forever hold your tongue!

Some thoughts on the freedom of speech and other trinkets.

Posted by Manjil Saikia on February 22, 2015

The following article was written for Srijan 2015, the annual magazine of Tezpur University. I am not sure if they will publish it or not, but here it goes anyways.

There has been so much debate going on in the media and socialnetworking websites about the freedom of expression in India. In particular the freedom of speech of an individual in India has been a hotly debated topic in the recent few months. To know, more about what this freedom entails me, I went back and read the relevant articles of the Constitution of India, which in the first place guarantees an individual the freedom of expression. Given in articles 19, 20, 21 and 22, with the view of guaranteeing individual rights that were considered vital by the framers of the constitution, the right to freedom in Article 19 guarantees the Freedom of speech and expression, as one of  freedoms of an individual. But before you think that this essentially allows you to speak or do anything you want, then you are wrong. Under Indian law, the freedom of speech and of the press do not confer an absolute right to express one’s thoughts freely. Clause (2) of Article 19 of the Indian constitution enables the legislature to impose certain restrictions on free speech under following heads:

  1. security of the State,
  2. friendly relations with foreign States,
  3. public order,
  4. decency and morality,
  5. contempt of court,
  6. defamation,
  7. incitement to an offence, and
  8. sovereignty and integrity of India.

Reasonable restrictions on these grounds can be imposed only by a duly enacted law and not by executive action.

Now that we know in some sense what we are allowed and not allowed to do, let me take a few examples to illustrate what is the present scenario in India. The examples that are choosen are very well known to everyone. In December, 2014 the blockbuster Aamir Khan movie PK released and all the Hindu god-men and Hindu associations were deeply angered by the movie. They wanted it banned from the country and they shouted slogans, vandalized public property and what not. Was that right on their part? No, absolutely not. Vandalizing public property in India is a criminal offense and should be punished. I am sure the movie contained a disclaimer which said that it was a work of fiction and should have been taken as such. Being a Hindu by birth, I found nothing in the movie that was partly not correct, and I allowed artistic liberty and kept an open mind and watched the movie. In fact I even enjoyed the movie, which in the age of movies like Chennai Express or Kick is a refreshing welcome addition to the cinema. But I must confess at this point in time, that I am not a practicing Hindu and that I am an agnostic. Still, objectively I feel the movie was not what the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and others made it put to be. One question that has always remained with me is, who made VHP the spokesperson of every Hindu in the world?

The next example that I have in mind, is the now infamous AIB Roast which featured some big names of Bollywood and which was released to the public in January 2015. The video went viral on the Internet and even I watched it. I found most of the jokes very poor, but I enjoyed the show as a whole. The show adhered to all the restrictions on YouTube and had disclaimers everywhere and could only be seen by an adult in India and the rest of the world. But then a gentlemen in Maharashtra thought that it degraded Indian culture and everyone involved should be punished. He lodged an FIR and the government of Maharashtra decided to act upon it. In time, the video was made private by AIB and what followed was massive opposition as well as support for them on social networking websites. What AIB did was not bad, and I do not think it violated any of the restrictions placed on the freedom of expression of an individual (in this case the people who were part of the roast). But what to do? We are a people of over one billion with over a million Gods and Goddess and yet we do not have a sense of humor.

What these examples are meant to show is that the freedom of expression mostly exists in books in India. We ban literature, we ban movies and now we are on the verge of banning harmless comedy. India in fact ranks 120th in the world according to Press Freedom Index, that is just pathetic for a country which is the world’s largest democracy. Most of these bans happen because someone or the other thought that it was against India’s traditions. A tradition is a belief or behavior passed down within a group or society with symbolic meaning or special significance with origins in the past. If this is the case, then we had an ancient text called Kamasutra, why is sex education still not a part of the school curriculum? We had ancient temple architecture showing homosexual acts of love, then why do the LGBT community still have to fight and hide in order to live a good life in India? The fact is that, we take the use of the word ‘tradition’ in a very light sense, and make it suit whatever is our whim. India is certainly no country for a honest opinion.

But, if we think a little deep, we will see that the problem is not with the government or with the myriad of associations and organizations that strive in India just to try an impose a ban on something or the other. The problem is with us, the people of India. How often have we said something in closed doors, but have failed to say it out loud? How often have we discreetly seen a banned video or read a banned book, but we never dared to raise a voice against it? If we are quiet now, we shall have to forever be quiet. The onus is on the youth of the nation to not only uphold the Constitution of India but also to speak out against the hypocrisy prevalent in the society now. Speak now or forever hold your tongue!