Delivering on the promise of raising issues that concern the youth of India, we at nextGen India organized our fourth weekly debate on 17 June. The motion before the house was “Is freedom of expression under threat in India?” We were joined by Krishnan from Chennai, Mehran Zaidi from Delhi, Center of Right from Delhi and Manish from Bangalore in the panel to brainstorm on the various facets of the “freedom of expression”.
The debate began with our panelists making their stands clear on the issue. Krishnan was vocal about freedom of expression being under threat in India. He compared India to a democracy founded on communist principles. Manish did not buy Krishnan’s arguments. According to him for every threat on freedom of expression, there has been a corresponding remedy or response. Mehran said the freedom of expression in India faced the toughest challenge from religion.
The introductory session was followed up by a short discussion on M F Husain. Although majority of the panel agreed that the hate campaign that was initiated against him was not in the right spirit of democracy, center of right said, Husain’s decision to leave India was his own. Manish also stated that Khusboo fought for her freedom of expression and the courts ruled in her favour. So, Husain should not have left India. Mehran blamed the religious extremists on this point. He said their pride gets hurt too easily. Krishnan supported Mehran with his view that a section of the society with vested interests has unleashed a reign of terror in the country.
Meanwhile to make audience a part of the debate we posed many polls to the live readers. When asked if they felt freedom of expression is under threat in India, 63% respondents replied in the affirmative. They also felt religion was the biggest block to freedom of expression (it was a unanimous verdict). And interestingly, 50% of the respondents who took the poll said Arundhati Roy has every right to say what she felt on the issue of Kashmir. Only 33% differed while 17% refused to comment saying it was controversial.
So the question before the panel was what the limit of freedom of expression is. Manish threw some light on it. He said, in case of violation of the sovereignty and integrity, security of the state, friendly relations with foreign states, public order, morality and decency, contempt of court and incitement to an offence, freedom of expression can be curtailed. He also quoted some wise man who said, “Your freedom to swing your stick ends where my nose begins.”.
Our panel agreed on the contention that right to reject a work of right was also freedom of expression but that should not amount to hurling abuses and pelting stones or forcing exhibitions to shut down.
In the second part of the debate the panel concentrated on the latest IT act. The panel was unanimous that the latest amendments were draconian and would infringe upon the freedom of expression in the virtual world. Manish response in this regard summarises the discussion “In case of the IT laws, you have a lot of discussion going on regarding them, online and offline, by various individuals and organisations. There is also talk of a legal challenge.The very fact that these are possible indicates that our freedom of speech and expression is alive and kicking.” However there was a consensus that speaking against government has often got people arrested, Binayak Sen for example. While the main case is still pending in court, his bail proceedings in the SC and the entire civil society debate around it was an example of how freedom of speech and expression was well-received and not suppressed.
The panel was also critical of the government action on Ramdev’s shivir at Ramlila. He had a right to protest and cracking down was an antithesis to the tolerance preached by Indian constitution felt the panel. However, dissenting sentiments found voice in Manish and Krishnan who opined that Ramdev’s supporters brought it upon them by attacking the police in the first place.
The diversity of issues discussed under the ambit of freedom of expression can be fathomed from the set of audience questions on the freedom of expression for girls, in the form of dress which they wish to wear, and also the right of homosexuals in choosing their partner.
In the end, the house agreed that the Indian constitution has given us rights. Along with that we also have certain duties to fulfil. We can command our freedoms only when we ensure our acts won’t be the cause of chagrin for someone else. The freedoms always come with responsibilities.