Current Free Speech Crisis in India (Part 1)


by Tanay Bhatt, Local Coordinator (2017-18), SASFL

The right to freedom of speech and expression, although an indispensable liberty, diverges from all other basic rights in a very important aspect. And it is this very aspect which makes it all the more essential for the state to protect and promote this right. Since this liberty pertains to some form of communication, which essentially takes place between multiple individuals, the efficacy and implication of an individual’s right to this liberty is not limited to that individual alone.

That is, the extent to which this right is allowed to be exercised affects other individuals too – the individuals who lie at the “receiving” end of the communication link. Thus, right to freedom of speech of one individual affects many other individuals as well.

Now, given that an individual’s right to free speech affects other individuals as well, I believe it becomes essential to think of freedom of speech as both a right and a responsibility. This applies especially in the cases similar to what might be considered offensive speech. If an individual does, in fact, feels offended due to some remark made by another individual, the former has the responsibility, as a bearer of this right, to use it and contest her own view with that of the latter.

Analogous arguments can be made for voice of dissent. Individuals subject to speech of dissenter have the responsibility to contest their own beliefs with those of the dissenter. Thinking along these lines not only provides arguments which guarantee and protect the right to free speech, but also, promotes discourse in a society, which is a very important underpinning for democracy.

It appears that groups advocating a ban on what might be construed as offensive speech often forget that those offended themselves bear the same right which allows them to put forward their own views. Therefore, the right to freedom of speech of non-absolute type is a positive right on not one but two accounts.

One, it protects individuals from being offended; and two, it protects people from having to use their right to speech to contest against what they find offensive. This is why, restrictions on the absolute freedom of speech is much more pernicious than it appears.  

The importance of recognizing the “responsibility” aspect of this right and the harmful effects that result from restrictions thereupon, are magnified when we consider the nature of dialogue between the government and the society. It is the responsibility of the government to hold regular dialogues with the public and have a broad space for criticism.

A government that tries to dodge criticism and fails to hold to regular public dialogues, is not only restricting discourse in a society but is also going out of its way to foist its beliefs on the public. This is something which is very characteristic of the incumbent in India.

It is rather ironic that despite being celebrated around the world as a brilliant orator, Narendra Modi has failed to hold even a single press conference in over three and a half years. The wonderful tradition of holding press conferences which goes back till Nehru and Indira Gandhi has been perverted by the current Prime Minister. Even Manmohan Singh, an individual subject to umpteen jokes revolving around his inability to “speak”, held several press conferences during his tenure as the prime minister.

But Modi, somehow, manages to remain silent on every single occurrence which has a possibility of holding him accountable and still celebrated for his oratory skills. Being a champion of one-sided discourse, he even managed to successfully rebuke the criticisms of economists round the world relying on ignorant arguments like, “Harvard se kuch nahi, ‘hard-work’ se hota hai”. (Hard-work is more powerful than Harvard)

Of course, in doing so, he won the Uttar Pradesh state elections held in March 2017, and now the state is run by a religious extremist who fails to see anything beyond bovines. This is a case in point for the extent to which restrictions (legal, or otherwise) on fair dialogue can harm a society and how the powerful can successfully foist their ideologies on the general populous.            

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