On paper, India is a democratic republic, based on the rule of law; where individual freedoms are guaranteed by the state. However, in practise, we are held hostage by disparate groups who are easily offended, and use existing laws to stifle free speech, and individual freedoms. This has to change.
In Odisha, a man was released from prison after 40 days. His ‘crime’ – his joke offended people. For the last six weeks, journalist and defence analyst Abhijit Iyer Mitra had been under lock and key. A prisoner of the state of Odisha, while awaiting prosecution for offending sentiments. Abhijit Iyer Mitra’s crime? He had recorded a video where he disparaged the Konarak Temple. And, he was rude about the Odisha legislature.
In Manipur, journalist Kishorechandra Wangkhem has been arrested under the National Security Act (NSA) for asking the state government, on video, what Rani Laxmibai had to do with the freedom movement in Manipur. A few days earlier, he had been arrested under sedition, and the judge saw nothing seditious with his video.
Wangkhem used expletives while describing the chief minister N Biren Singh, and politicians at the centre. Unfortunately, swearing is seen by some as an assertive way of making a point, and while it is a wrong assumption, it should not be a violation of national security.
In Karnataka, journalist Santosh Thammaiah was arrested for making a speech that was disparaging of Tipu Sultan. Thammaiah questioned the state government about having Tipu Sultan celebrations, which in his opinion was not warranted. And, while Tipu Sultan may be a hero to many, there are those who have issues with his record as a ruler. And, it is perfectly alright to hold that opinion and express it.
These are three cases have hit the news cycle, possibly because the arrested were journalists, and had friends who were journalists and who could bring these stories to light. However, there are more cases where we don’t even get to hear about arrests.
On paper, Indian citizens have the right to free expression, the right to crack jokes, the right to voice opinions. However, in actuality, most of us are muted by the select few who get ‘insulted’ by the exercise of free speech and use existing laws, aimed at preventing riots, to stifle speech and freedoms.
Both Iyer Mitra and Thammaiah have been booked under section 295 (A) that charges them with deliberately hurting religious sentiments. And, Wangkhem has been charged under the National Security Act. While politicians get away with incendiary speeches at election rallies, and abusing each other – these three men are facing some very serious charges.
In effect, we are telling citizens that if others find your words offensive and riot, then you are culpable for their loss of control. And, there is something completely skewed by this kind of logic. We shouldn’t comment on history because people might be offended. We can’t question religion because some people may be offended. We can’t eat certain kinds of food, because some people may be offended. We cannot make certain kinds of films, or show certain kinds of interpretations, because people may be offended. People who get offended and issue threats or commit violence are not charged with crimes. People who speak and express are.
For an individual to go up against the state, to defend themselves, is a monumental task. Between the police stations, and the courts, and the final judgement, you can spend a lifetime taking on the system and get nowhere. It is often easier to grovel out an apology and move on. And every time that happens, everyone’s freedoms get reduced just a wee bit more.
India needs to have an agency that looks at defending individual rights and the right to free expression, and if needed, the right to offend. And, this agency needs to defend the constitutional rights irrespective of the political leaning of the person whose rights are under attack. The rights of the individual have to be greater than the collective rage of groups.
Freedom of expression will cause offense to some. For example, an atheist telling a devout person that they think there is no God, can be considered by some to be offensive; while others may get offended by the concept of evolution; yet others might get offended by being told that they lost a war sometime in the distant past. While hate speech needs to be curtailed, every criticism, opinion, or joke is not hate speech. The state cannot penalise people for expressing opinions. If anything, it needs to be harder on those who cause violence after being offended.
In a constitutional republic with a focus on individual rights, jokes and rude comments should be perfectly acceptable. Alas, in India the concept of individual rights is being pummelled by the collective rage of select groups.
And strangely enough, the reactions on social media and in the real world are quite aligned – that people should be careful about hurting the sentiments of others. The problem with the premise is this, any view or opinion can hurt the feelings of someone. And holding your silence, because you are afraid of the consequences of fighting the state or powerful groups, is not conducive to democracy.
Harini Calamur writes on politics, gender and her areas of interest are the intersection of technology, media, and audiences.
First Published: IST