Recently during my free time, browsing through You Tube I came across a video of noted Pakistani historian-cum-columnist Mr.Hassan Nisar speaking to a Pakistani private television channel in a programme called Mere Mutabiq on the occasion of Pakistan’s Yaum-e-Azaadi. Among the various things that Mr.Nisar spoke forthrightly about, one particular sentence stuck me so deeply that I can recite it in my dreams. About the Independence of Pakistan Mr.Nisar says “14th August 1947 ko hame koi azaadi nahi mili, sirf hamare aaka tabdeel hue the.” In simple English it means “on 14th August 1947, we did not get any Independence, only our masters changed that day”, obviously referring to the change of guard from the British to the natives. Jingoistic pride made me feel very happy for a minute and laugh at Mr.Nisar’s very obvious barb at the powers that be in Pakistan. Once the laughter died down, I spoke aloud the same sentence to myself, in Indian context. I was shocked to realize that Mr.Nisar could well have been speaking about India and that some of his barbs would indeed stick. Mr.Nisar goes on to propound, in his trademark brave words dripping with sarcasm and genuine ire about various ‘issues’ to back his theory that but for the change in masters, freedom still eludes the populace. Many of them relevant in India’s case too. It was quite disturbing to say the least. And it set me thinking. I decided to revisit my middle school political science lessons on our Fundamental Rights as encoded in the Constitution of India. While the ‘scope’ of freedom as a subject is vast, I restrict my thoughts to just one here: Freedom of Speech and Expression.
“Right to freedom which includes speech and expression, assembly, association or union or cooperatives, movement, residence, and right to practice any profession or occupation” 'Part III – Fundamental Rights'
The question that troubled me was this: Do we ‘really’ enjoy the Freedom of Speech and Expression? The question led me to a few instances which seemed to suggest the opposite which I mention below:
1. The destruction of an art gallery running an exhibition of M F Hussain’s paintings of Hindu Gods and Goddesses.
2. Akbaruddin Owaisi’s ‘hate speech’.
3. Non release of the film Vishwaroopam and its subsequent release only after certain portions were edited.
4. Ban imposed on the sale of Salman Rushdie’s book The Satanic Verses.
In each case I found that the fundamental right of Freedom of Speech and Expression as enshrined in the Constitution of India and as I understood it being infringed upon. Interestingly one finds that the ‘opponents’ in some of the cases mentioned above and its ‘supporters’ often undergo a switch in their roles in some of the other cases. This led me to further dig into the political science book and I came up with this:
Restrictions upon the Freedom of Speech and Expression if it affects any of the following:
· I. security of the State,
· II. friendly relations with foreign States,
· III. public order,
· IV. decency and morality,
· V. contempt of court,
· VI. defamation,
· VII. incitement to an offence, and
· VIII. sovereignty and integrity of India.
While I wrote the above answers by rote during my school examination, the dichotomy struck me once I revisited the entire scenario. I mean how can I be ‘free’ to expound my views through a spoken or a written word or a film as the case maybe if I am leashed by restrictions? If you look at the cases listed above what stands out is that freedom was infringed upon due to a lurking fear of violence from the ‘aggrieved’ party and not all of these cases went through the courts and due process of law. In any civil society the normal option available to anyone who disagrees with a point of view propounded is to counter the same with words of logic and reason presenting the opposite view. Or agree to disagree. Or yet still approach the Courts for justice. It is only when a spoken or a written word is not opposed by a similarly ‘peaceful’ mode and instead we see physical violence or a possibility of the same being resorted to that we see the ‘freedom’ of speech being infringed upon. While I concede that maintaining peace, harmony, law and order is indeed a thankless job but there is always a fear that we may end up becoming a ‘mute’ society afraid of speaking our mind because someone will decide to take offence and react violently and the state may decide to bring in further ‘restrictions’ to maintain ‘law & order’. Most of us don’t have any problem if anyone disagrees with us, in fact would welcome a civil debate on the disagreement. Just as it is the duty of the citizens to keep the discourse non violent it is the duty of the government to punish those indulging in violence and protect the individual freedoms. Or else we will end up like this cold war quip mentioned below:
PS: Go ahead, speak up. We have nothing to lose except our freedom!
Mere Mutabiq : My Views
Yaum-e-Azaadi: Independence Day