Updated: March 14, 2015 12:00:37 am
The right to disagree, without which democracy would be a hollow shell, has been upheld in the courts. In a ruling that sets a valuable precedent, the Delhi High Court has clearly and explicitly elevated the “right to criticise and dissent” to the level of a fundamental right. It has ticked off the government and directed it to expunge the word “offloaded” from the passport of Greenpeace activist Priya Pillai, who was prevented from flying to London to speak to UK parliamentarians on the plea that she posed a risk to national security. She is now free to travel. In protecting the citizen from arbitrary state action, the court has done its highest duty.
On the same day, the same court spoke a different tongue to stay the screening of the BBC documentary, India’s Daughter, until the appeal in the Supreme Court was heard, on the ground that it could prejudice the treatment of the case. “Judges are not from outer space”, the court said, and indeed they should not be. They should be grounded in the here and now, immersed in the relentless stream of discourse in media and social media, and in the public sphere, which has become a permanent feature of our reality. The human challenge of our times — and judges are only human, not from outer space — is to hear all, know all, and not be influenced at all. What is the alternative? Electronic monasticism? Sensory deprivation?
The stay on the screening of India’s Daughter is inexplicable because it militates against the principle behind the direction in the Greenpeace case. In that matter, the court had essentially told the government that it was free to ignore the message, but it could not fetter the messenger. But simultaneously, it is fettering the right of the documentary-maker to transmit her message. Perhaps the Greenpeace case will serve as the seed for a body of case law in which such contradictions are reconciled, and which is based on overriding respect for the fundamental democratic idea of liberty.
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