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Dissent under siege

Diversity of thought, freedom of speech, face enormous challenges today

Written by Ajit Prakash Shah | Published: April 21, 2017 12:38 am
The guarantee of freedom of speech rings hollow, if the state cannot guarantee freedom after speech…

Today, we are living in a world where we are told what we can and cannot speak about — dissent is being curbed. If anyone holds a view different from the government’s, they are dubbed “anti-national”.  I’d like to caution against what the celebrated Nigerian author Chimamanda Adichie terms the “danger of a single story” — understanding an idea only from a single perspective, ignoring a diversity of views. We must respect differences — not silence those who hold a different view…

Our current state is especially sad when we consider that the freedom struggle gave us a Constitution committed to democracy, free speech, civil liberties and secularism. Free speech is not a privilege the government bestows on us — it is our right, won after decades of struggle by the people. Free speech, though, is under attack… Even the Bombay High Court on occasion failed to protect it. It constituted a committee to give a report on scenes in Jolly LLB 2 it found “objectionable”… a movie the Censor Board had given the requisite certification for release. The Bombay High Court’s order… essentially forced the producers to “compromise”.

I hope such judgements are aberrations…

Free speech has to be protected also by statutory institutions. Unfortunately, we read of our censor board refusing to certify a movie because it was “lady oriented”; it deleted “mann ki baat” because that is the name of the prime minister’s radio show; it demanded that the Hanuman Chalisa be muted in Phillauri… In Udta Punjab, the censor board demanded 94 cuts — including deleting “Punjab”, deleting certain abuses, deleting “election”, “MP”, “party worker”.

If this is not an assault on the freedom of speech, I don’t knw what is…

In 1995, the Supreme Court acquitted on sedition persons who shouted slogans like “Khalistan zindabaad…” a few hours after Indira Gandhi’s assassination… the court held that “raising of some lonesome slogans which neither evoked any response nor reaction…” did not amount to sedition. It is through this lens that one should view the JNU incident. Regardless of whether the students’ slogans were anti-national, as long as they did not incite violence, it does not get covered under sedition.

I would like to express my anguish on the language of the Delhi High Court’s bail order and the unnecessary invocation of nationalism… Unfortunately, the broad scope of Section 124A allows it to be used by the state to go after those who challenge its power, whether the JNU students, activists such as Hardik Patel and Binayak Sen, authors such as Arundhati Roy, cartoonists such as Aseem Trivedi, villagers protesting against the Kudankulam nuclear plant… The threat of sedition produces a chilling effect on the exercise of one’s fundamental right to free speech. The law needs to be repealed. However, it is unlikely that any government will give up this power.

University spaces are for dissent… However, this is under challenge — clear from the backlash against Rohit Vemula’s mother, sedition charges against JNU students, protests at Ramjas about a seminar, the outcry against an undergraduate’s tweet, “I am not afraid of ABVP”. A video, where she held a placard, saying, “Pakistan did not kill my father, war did” went viral, cricketers, actors, politicians criticising the girl. She was subject to such threats, she had to leave Delhi. Have we reached such insecurity that a 21-year-old’s views must be met with such a backlash? That the Union Home Minister (State) has to tweet, “Who is polluting this young girl’s mind?”

The guarantee of freedom of speech rings hollow, if the state cannot guarantee freedom after speech…

I’d also like to talk about the Supreme Court’s order requiring movie-goers to “stand in respect” for the national anthem before a movie starts… The order seems contrary to the Constitution’s spirit — the right to free speech and expression includes the right not to speak or express ourselves. As Pratap Bhanu Mehta points out, everything that makes for a better citizen should not be made compulsory… “conscripted nationalism”… undermines patriotism.

Preventing people from eating food they want undermines unity. Mohan Bhagwat called for a national law against cow slaughter: We must be wary of forcing a single way of living… One reads about slaughterhouse crackdowns, primarily targeted at Muslim butchers, leaving lakhs with fear, and without stable employment. We had the horrific Una incident, seven Dalits beaten by cow vigilantes. And how can we forget the lynching of Akhlaq, suspected of storing beef, where the first thing sent for forensic examination was not his body, but the food in the fridge. Is this what human life comes to?

Enforced nationalism cannot promote true culture. If we have to give true meaning to the prime minister’s promise of “sabka saath, sabka vikas”, then we must celebrate not only those who profess affection for the state, but also those who believe that change is necessary or injustice is being committed. We cannot have an Orwellian situation, where the government speaks in one language, but fails to walk the talk.

The strength of a nation is not gauged by the uniformity of opinion of its citizens. The strength of a nation is revealed when it does not feel threatened by its citizens expressing revolutionary views; when citizens do not resort to violence against fellow citizens, merely for expressing a contrary view.

That is when we will be truly free.

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  1. S
    S.K. Express
    Apr 22, 2017 at 3:38 am
    The same old blah blah ... blah. Since you are such a proponent of free speech, let me ask you one question. Would you reprint or even discuss the contents of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons in this newspaper? If the answer is no, then just stop your nonsensical arguments about free speech. You are only showing your bais and cowardice. You should also include what Sonu Nigam said and how is being hounded now!
    1. m
      Apr 21, 2017 at 11:27 pm
      Selective choice and only quoting incidents as per convince I could make hi look like he incited violence. For all the sense in the world why would you choose to be nonsensical by choosing to give stupids the choice of holding the sword of FOE but take away others right to respond or repose a question.....
      1. O
        Onkar Singh
        Apr 21, 2017 at 11:17 pm
        One dimensional human beings are the most dangerous for the human society.The Indian Society is a multicultural society,and the Hindutva Ideology of the ruling establishment doesn't fit in well with our society.Right to dissent only matures the debate in a democracy.And we need to strengthen our Ins utions on the touchstone​of free speech and the right to dissent.And also the right to expose the corrupt.Modi talks of eradicating corruption but his govt dismisses the BSF JAWAN: Tej Bahadur.This is double standards!!You talk of Surgical strike and on the sly you reduce the pension of incapacitated soldiers.If you don't have right to free speech you can't expose the govt and it's high handedness.If Kashmiris had to leave Kashmir we need to examine the socio-economic political situation of that time and go and identify the root cause,about which nobody is willing to shed light on.Thats the irony.And that's because of the lack of free speech. We don't want to hear the bitter truth.
        1. T
          Thrinethran T
          Apr 22, 2017 at 1:32 am
          You are supporting radical separatism by justifying the Kashmir episode on the basis of prior socio-economic conditions, ignoring Cons utional governance. The same type of justification could be used reversely by those whom you oppose, with greater force and wider application.
        2. U
          usual suspect
          Apr 21, 2017 at 8:19 pm
          Author deliberately not mentioned banning of Taslim nasreen in WB and banning of Salman rushdi's book Satanic Versus by SICKULAR parties. Throwing off 5 lakh Kashmiri Pundit out of their home was indeed great act of tolerance secularism and liberalism.
          1. G
            George Cruz
            Apr 21, 2017 at 7:55 pm
            The Diversity of thought, freedom of speech comes with the responsibility, love for the nation and one's solidarity with the nation. The truth is that the protests, riots, and exploitation of the freedom of speech at the left oriented universities like the JNU, university of Hyderabad, etc by the Kashmir separatists Islamic Jihadists is pure anti-national activities. The worse acts of anti-national activities like pelting stone at armed personnel, shouting anti-India slogans, and hoisting the flag of the Islamic Caliphate Pak are definitely don't fall under the category of dissent or individual freedom.
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