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Monday, January 24, 2022

Dissent under siege

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

Written by Ajit Prakash Shah |
April 21, 2017 12:38:56 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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