Dear Mr Jaitley
No. no, and no. You are dead wrong. The Indians’ right to free speech is absolutely not up for debate. What restrictions may an authoritarian government–the kind of which you are a part–place on the free speech of its opponents absolutely can’t be up for debate. Indians’ hard won freedoms were once taken away by another authoritarian regime in 1975. You may remember that Mr Jaitley. You were in the forefront of the student movement to challenge the gag orders of Indira Gandhi’s emergency. I unreservedly salute you for your courage at the time.
But sadly your belief that “free speech in India and in any society needs to be debated” has cast an indelible blemish on your record as a one-time defender of people’s civil liberties. It was commendable that in your youth you followed JP Narayan, then the most ardent defender of the basic freedoms just as was Mahatma Gandhi in his time. But by calling into question people’s right to free speech above and beyond the constitution you may have trudged into the condemnable category.
Minister Jaitley, there is no need to remind you because you know that patriotism is usually the last refuge of a scoundrel; you are anything but. You are an honourable man of letters. You know there can be only two types of limits on free speech: Those imposed by the Constitution and those imposed by convention so that none could yell “fire” in a crowded hall to create chaos. India already has enough laws on the books. So why do you suddenly see the need to debate the limits of free speech in the country? Free speech, to have it or not to have it isn’t the question. Indians have it and they aren’t about to meekly surrender it, come hell or high water and no matter what the pretence or the stripe of government.
The territorial integrity and unity of the country is important and the country must do all it can under the Constitution to maintain and defend it. But it must be guided not by scaremongering but by compassion and commonsense. As a lover of politics you must know the famous quotation normally attributed to Voltaire which in fact comes from the pen of Evelyn Beatrice Hall: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Those words embody and epitomise true free speech and democracy. I would have expected and hoped for these kinds of words from you in defence of free speech. Anything less may be what the British bequeathed to us, not under their own laws as they are now, but under colonial laws designed to suppress dissent of the slaves such as the sedition provisions currently on the statute books. The way they are framed, those laws are about slavery, not freedom or free speech. It is a crying shame that a learned man like you succumbed to partisanship and capitulated to the current RSS/ABVP paranoia about what you most irresponsibly call the “alliance of subversion”. It ill behoves a minister of India smearing a whole cross section of people with treason.
Mr Jaitley your argument that “free speech is subordinate to the needs of the sovereign state”– a novel claim based on the ‘needs’ of the sovereign state–betrays a dangerous belief that the state can restrict free speech above and beyond the Constitution. You could have simply argued the Constitution allows for “reasonable limits on free speech”. No, you chose to advance a new theory of “the needs of the sovereign state” which implies that you found the framers of the Constitution wanting in that regard. Framers willed it Mr Jaitely that the Indians’ right to free speech can only be limited by and under the Constitution. Indians must be free to exercise free speech under the Constitution and not under the dictates and “the needs of the sovereign state” as defined by your or any other government.
Mr Minister, the truth is that without people there can be no state. Any state must exist for and because of its people. Their inherent patriotism wills it so. A people simply existing for the state under an authoritarian government would be like North Koreans–less than free–un-free and on the way to slavery. I understand one’s obligation to one’s country. One of my ancestors was hanged by the British in the Lahore Conspiracy Case and another spent many years in British jails in pursuit of India’s Independence. My blood too was shed in fighting the Khalistani extremists in Canada in 1985 while I stood firm for peace in Canada and India, and in defence of the territorial integrity and indivisibility of India. Freedom is important to India and its people. Freedom too is indivisible. But Mr Jaitley, without robust freedom of speech, there can be no real freedom, only a chimera.