Supreme Court judge Justice D Y Chandrachud, while speaking at a virtual event Saturday, said totalitarian governments are associated with a “constant reliance on falsehoods” and it is the duty of citizens to strengthen public institutions and always question the State to determine the truth.
While delivering a talk on the topic “Speaking Truth to Power: Citizens and the Law” as a part of the 6th MC Chagla Memorial Online Lecture, Justice Chandrachud said speaking truth to power is a right that every citizen must have in a democracy but equally, it is a duty of every citizen, the Live Law reported.
The right to speak truth to power by the citizens is integral to the functioning of a modern democracy, he said, adding, one cannot rely solely on the State to determine the truth but citizens must remain more vigilant and participate more actively in the process.
“Speaking truth to power” refers to an act by a speaker to use truth to criticise someone who is more powerful, Justice Chandrachud said. This act aims to uphold the right to hold truth to power with the assumption being that truth will counteract power and obviate a predisposition to tyranny, he added.
“Democracy and truth go hand in hand. Democracy needs truth to survive,” he said.
Justice Chandrachud, however, said totalitarian governments are associated with a “constant reliance on falsehoods in order to establish dominance” and public intellectuals have a duty to question the state to determine the truth.
“It can’t be said that State will not indulge in falsehood for political reasons even in democracies. The role of US in the Vietnam War did not see the daylight until the Pentagon papers were published. In context of Covid, we see that there is an increasing trend of countries across the world trying to manipulate data. Hence, one cannot only rely on the state to determine the truth,” he said.
“As responsible citizens, we should put these truth providers through intense scrutiny and questioning to convince ourselves of the veracity of the claims made by them. It is equally important for those making truth claims to be transparent,” he added.
Referring to Hannah Arendt’s ideas on totalitarian regimes and Noam Chomsky’s call to action for intellectuals to speak the truth, Justice Chandrachud said it is the duty of every citizen to take steps to strengthen a country’s public institutions. This can be done by ensuring schools and universities give students a free environment where they can differentiate truth from falsehood, the plurality of opinions is celebrated, the integrity of elections protected and steps taken to ensure that we have a free press.
“People not being concerned about the truth is another phenomenon in the post-truth world. There is a contest between ‘our truth’ versus ‘your truth’ and the tendency to ignore the truth which is not in alignment with one’s perception of truth. We live in a post-truth world. Social media platforms are responsible… but citizens are also responsible. We incline towards echo chambers and don’t like opposing beliefs… we live in a world that is increasingly divided along social, economic and religious lines,” he said.
He added, “We only read newspapers that align with our beliefs… we ignore books written by people who do not belong to our stream…we mute the TV when someone has a different opinion… we do not truly care about the ‘truth’ as much as we do about being ‘right’.”
While referring to demands from several quarters to regulate social media platforms, Justice Chandrachud said that as a member of the judiciary, it would not be appropriate for him to comment on the matter.
He also pointed out that when he was emphasising the need for citizens to speak truth to power, he did not mean only intellectual elites and the privileged classes — women, Dalits and members of other marginalised communities have an important role to play in this context, he said. “Since they did not enjoy the freedom to express their opinion, their thoughts were confined, crippled and caged. After abolition of the British Raj, the truth became the belief and opinion of upper-caste men,” he said.