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The ossification of free speech in India

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Samved Iyer
Samved Iyer
Eternal as evolution is, I cannot purport to have grown in thorough measure, and I am hopeful of augmenting my perspicacity in the company of beings far more erudite than me.

Persons have a right or liberty to follow their own will in all things that the law has not prohibited and not be subject to the inconstant, uncertain, unknown, and arbitrary wills of others.

Spake thus John Locke, among the most momentous leaders of the Enlightenment, the father of liberalism.

It is not solely by virtue of our Constitution, but also in accordance with the most sagacious wisdom of our ancestors that we, the people of India, discern in one another an individual in one’s right, ever so unique. For it is nature’s very ordination that one respect the autonomy of the other. As do differ the genetic anatomy of two individuals, so do differ their streams of thought. A society best treads on the path of progress with free and forthright exchange of assorted opinions, for the benefit thereof is not merely intellectual but often pecuniary. The right to unfettered expression is an indispensable component of true freedom, for it is an impetus for the truth to emerge in the best of its resplendence.

Lamentable, therefore, are our state of affairs that society in itself must be so inimical to the notion of free speech. I write in particular of India with no right greater than the mere actuality as its citizen who cannot but have its best interests in consideration. By no means could I claim to be the nation’s conscience keeper — I could never. These are expositions in the capacity of an individual and I would truly goad readers into expressing an alternative view or even discord with what I have sought to convey by means of this forthright essay.

The narrative with regard to freedom of speech may have particularly been accentuated with the advent of social media, which has led to the democratization of the public discourse. The distinction between a republic and a democracy is that while the former entails the election of representatives who formulate policies on behalf of the people, the latter entails a direct entrustment of power to the people. The advent of social media has ensured the prevalence of popular thought. The contention of some to the effect that it has challenged the elitism of the media having been granted, it has also ostensibly ensured an angrier populace. We perhaps understate the prodigious psychological impact it could have on the masses.

People as a whole lack the dispassionate, objective temperament that befits an academician. Subjection thus to heavy and often uncivil condemnation online — veritable mob justice on cyberspace — is but a quotidian occurrence. It is a convenient medium to express variegated sentiments. To an extent, social media accords a person with a shade of anonymity, which could easily create illusions of invincibility. Wherefor he cannot express physical anger, therefor he can express cyberspatial anger. He does so in thorough measure. He experiences unprecedented satisfaction at having done so. To some, it has become so great a priority that it may be quite the achievement for them.

Yet, the most fundamental question as to the reasons behind his anger remains to be addressed. Perhaps, he knows he cannot express that opinion of his outside social media, for he shall in all probability be a victim of retributive violence. For it is the way of the mob to respond with intimidation in the absence of cogent arguments, and one needs no rocket scientist to observe the prevalence of the way of the mob in a preindustrial society like India. This is safely attributed to the State’s lack of monopoly over violence.

A society prior to industrialization is essentially feudal in character. The economic liberalization of 1991 notwithstanding, there remains a feudal disposition ingrained into the national consciousness. An examination of the Industrial Revolution in the west would evince the observations in the foregoing paragraph. An important consequence of industrialization was an increase in urbanization, but it also resulted in increased urban crime, owing to three factors, namely, poverty, unemployment and overcrowding in the cities. In the initial years of industrialization, there was no job security or social security for the factory worker. In the event that the worker lost his job, there would have been little chance for him to find an alternative source of income. Cities were unprepared for the influx of people who ventured to the urban areas in search of employment. The process of industrialization, therefore, resulted in major social upheaval, which could only be tackled by the State. In such circumstances, the State resorts to ruthless enforcement of law and order. It does not allow the existence of fringe groups or mafia groups, who may well create zones into which even law enforcement agencies may fear to venture. In technical terms, this strong action by the state is precisely what is termed, “monopoly over violence”. This has a proclivity to temper the masses and make them more respectful of law and order.

None of this ever materialized in India. It is extremely common to hear conscientious concerns raised about the lack of respect for law and order in India. The absence of industrialization is a major if not the sole reason for the same. High levels of societal violence are characteristic of a feudal society. The State’s lack of monopoly over violence in India is evinced by the presence of such maleficent groups as may establish zones where law enforcement agencies prove ineffective.

A feudal society can hardly be tolerant of free speech and expression, for the ruling elite is used to obsequious service and propitiation from the ruled, and to the ruled, bold assertions of one’s autonomy are nothing short of celestial. Insofar as India is concerned, the problem is compounded by the predominance of the factors of religion and caste. In a profoundly unfortunate contortion of the wisdom that Indian scriptures have by and large stood for, the Indian civilization metamorphosed into so collectivist a society as to subordinate individual autonomy in the garb of religious and casteist pride. The same collectivism subsists in substantial measure to date. And which region would be best depictive of feudalism that owes its provenience to such collectivism, but the platitudinous Indian village?

What is a village but a sink of localism, a den of ignorance, narrowmindedness and communalism?” asked not an elitist city-dweller who thought of himself as superior to the benighted rural denizens, but an extremely erudite scholar, discriminated against right from birth on account of his caste, who discerned the nuances of Indian society like perhaps no other: Dr. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar. Here is but one instance evincing the intentions of Indians to prove right Dr. Ambedkar’s scathing remarks from seven decades ago. Feudalism can hardly conform to the principles of free speech.

I for one concur with eminent analyst Abhijit Iyer-Mitra that the Brandenburg precedent is the gold-standard for evaluation of what can be permissible under free speech. So long as the utterance is not a specific threat against a specific person in a specified time frame, it must be permissible.

Every political party in India has been at some point in time been guilty of suppressing free speech. Yet, no party physically hounds a person with contrary views as does a regional party. Stand-up comedian Agrima Joshua happened to mock the conspiracy theories about a certain statue of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj in Mumbai. Hilarious though it may sound, there indeed were people with the firm belief that the statue could deploy sophisticated offensive mechanisms against terrorists from Pakistan intending to enter the Indian mainland through the sea. None of her comments were directed against Maharaj per se, but the regional parties in Maharashtra took extreme offence. The Maharashtra Navanirman Sena (MNS) went so far as to vandalize the studio where she had performed.

Not complicit in this particular incident, the history of the ruling Shiv Sena party is also replete with such hooliganism. Much the same holds true for the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP). The media, hitherto dominant public intellectuals, stand-up comedians and student activists dare not speak against them when such parties are in power, but it is interesting to see them dole out imprecations, stage protests and even riots claiming to save India’s democratic ideals when the much more docile Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) that currently commands the government at the national level, is in power. For they are aware that the BJP at best ignores or at worst detains such individuals (with extreme rarity of prolonged arrests), but that the regional parties shall vandalize their workplaces, beat them up and worse, their story shall not necessarily be given prominence in the media.

Numerous if not all regional parties have no ambitions that transcend political power at the state level. Such of them are perhaps aware that they shall never expand nationally and remain restricted to their respective states. It is, therefore, much more affordable to them to exploit regional, linguistic and caste sentiments. In the states in south India where Dravidian sentiments are often inflamed, it can be particularly perilous for individuals to challenge the pro-Dravidian regional parties. At the expense of sounding generalized, I contend that the very existence of some regional parties is inimical to the ideals of free speech.

The national parties must at bare minimum don a semblance of inclusiveness in order to grow. They cannot afford to appear exclusivist. The BJP did not transform into the planet’s largest political party by membership without the foundations of constant grooming by the pan-India sociocultural organization — the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). In the service shakhas of the RSS are members transcending caste, religious, linguistic and regional barriers, from across an assortment of professions — working as volunteers — ever at the forefront for social service, be it in times of natural disasters such as the 2001 Gujarat Earthquake or the extant Coronavirus pandemic. The RSS having been the mentor organization of the BJP, there is at the very core of the BJP a sense of liberality exceeding that of almost every other political party in India. Guilty though it has been of suppressing freedom of speech on numerous occasions — an abomination not to be justified — it is notably not nearly as brutal in terms of its response as others.

Yet another problem that does not attract the requisite amount of debate is the suppression of free speech by the judiciary. Prashant Bhushan’s recent case is evincive of the same. His criticism of four Chief Justices of India, one of them incumbent, could at best have been a ground for a defamation case pursued by the judges in their individual capacity. However, the Supreme Court of India chose to utilize its state powers and lodge a contempt case against him. It is difficult to view it as anything but judicial tyranny. On one hand, the Supreme Court is described with the honourable title, “Guardian of the Constitution” — the very Constitution that by means of Article 19(1)(a) guarantees to its citizens the right to freedom of speech and expression. On the other hand, it uses contempt law to suppress the same. Contempt of court is categorized as one of the reasonable restrictions in Article 19(2). However, criticism of judges cannot be construed as contempt. Only contravention of a court order can be categorized as such. Prashant Bhushan’s case can aptly be summed up by employing the phraseology of Abhijit Iyer-Mitra, “The law is law because it is consistent. Law shorn of consistency is tyranny.”

Not even the non-Left, which is considerably concerned with the Left’s absolute intolerance of speech critical of it, does not appear to be concerned with judicial tyranny. To its credit, it is helping raise awareness with regard to intolerance in other spheres, the academia being the most prominent of them all. Emergent among the non-Left in India are numerous volunteer institutions such as Sangam Talks, The Jaipur Dialogues, IndicAcademy et al that have an incentive to be committed to academic objectivity. That incentive is their very survival against the onslaught of the Left-dominated academia who squander no opportunity at putting forth a predisposed narrative of the nation.

The eminent panelists they invite for panel discussions — such as Sanjeev Sanyal, Dr. Vikram Sampath, Abhijit Iyer-Mitra, Dr. Anand Ranganathan, J Sai Deepak, Sanjay Dixit, Nilesh Nilkanth Oak, Dr. Manish Pandit, Sandeep Balakrishna, Anuj Dhar, Dr. David Frawley et al — are all proponents of freedom of speech and expression. Their slow but steadily rising acceptability among the masses is evincive of a hope that the academic and public narrative shall gradationally gravitate towards a centrist position, away from the extremes of either the Left or the non-Left. I do, however, hope that they also address judicial tyranny with equal regularity. Perhaps society as a whole shall itself be more accepting of Freedom of Speech, subject say to an Indian equivalent of the Brandenburg precedent. Political parties in the future however distant would be compelled to take cognizance of those realities and conform accordingly.

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Samved Iyer
Samved Iyer
Eternal as evolution is, I cannot purport to have grown in thorough measure, and I am hopeful of augmenting my perspicacity in the company of beings far more erudite than me.
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