February 27, 2016 12:03:37 am
Union Minister Venkaiah Naidu’s outrage at the government being reminded that free speech is a hallmark of democracy is misplaced. Though the minister did not take names, it was clear he was responding to the US ambassador, Richard Verma, who recently said free speech was a central tenet of what India and the US hold dear. Naidu’s response in Parliament indicates a certain defensiveness, and even hurt, regarding criticism, especially when it comes from Western countries. There is little to contest in Verma’s formulation, since free speech is a constitutional right and India has a reasonable record in protecting it.
In a rhetorical flourish, Naidu asked if any US university would allow a celebration of Osama bin Laden’s “martyrdom anniversary”. They may or may not, but the US swears by the First Amendment that protects free speech. In the Indian context, Naidu
may consider his own government’s response to Hindu Mahasabha activists celebrating the death of Mahatma Gandhi, the father of the nation. Mahasabha activists have also spoken about their intent to build a memorial to Gandhi’s assassin, Nathuram Godse. They have been mostly ignored by the government though there were some who insisted that their actions were seditious. Even where some state governments ordered arrests, no one was booked under the sedition law. BJP MP Sakshi Maharaj, who claimed that he considered Godse a patriot, did not have to face penal action. This was the right response since the law allows people to hold unpopular views so long as they do not threaten public order. What constitutes sedition is clearly defined in the Indian law and various court judgments have held that an offence is committed only if the words, spoken or written, lead to or incite disorder and violence. The arrests of the JNU students are contested because Delhi Police, which slapped criminal charges on them for organising a meeting on the university campus, appears to have ignored the court readings of the sedition law.
Naidu is spot on when he says the government must be concerned about the unity, integrity, security and sovereignty of the country. But it should not let the concern grow into a fear of free speech and dissent. Surely, a few students discussing the Afzal Guru case within their campus does not call for the government to be so worked up.
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