Friday, January 13, 2006

Freedom of speech and expression

"I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it" - Voltaire.

This one line sums up for me, the whole essence of democractic behaviour. Disagree, disagree vociferously, but jaw jaw instead of ban ban, or burn burn. The First Amendment to the US constitution for example, says "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances." Thus, the right to freedom of speech and expression is absolute. Similar laws exist in other democracies.

Unfortunately, the one democracy that has never stood up for freedom of expression is our own India. Article 19, which grants us our fundamental rights, while granting us our right to speech, expression, and assembly circumscribes it with the following: "Nothing...shall affect the operation of any existing law, or prevent the State from making any law, in so far as such law imposes reasonable restrictions on the exercise of the right conferred by the said sub-clause in the interests of ... public order, decency or morality, or in relation to contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence."

So, essentially, while you have your right to speech and expression, nothing will prevent the government from banning a book you write, from arresting you for a speech you make, or from subjecting you to a trial by fire like so many movie makers found, recent examples being the book on Shivaji by John Laine, and the movie "Rang de basanti".

While criticizing the law, lets not forget that the law has not evolved in isolation. It is our feudal attitudes that have allowed such a law to be born and be used. When we cheered the burning of MF Hussain's paintings, banning of the "Satanic Verses", stoning of the theatres showing "Fire" and "Water", we hit another nail in the coffin of free expression. Each such move, supported by some section of the population has only emboldened the State to further challenge the citizen's right to expression. So, the next time you hear someone advocating at the top of his lungs that which you would spend a lifetime opposing, take a deep breath, and walk away. And thank god, warts and all, that this country still lets you do that.

5 comments:

mavinakuli said...

Yes.I agree with u.

kattricker said...

Couldnt agree with you more Gops. Man, I just love the way you *free* your thoughts!

Gops said...

Thanks guys!
Great to know that you like the post :D

Anonymous said...

"Freedom means
ask nothing
expect nothing
depend on nothing "
Read the above lines very recently in a book.
Freedom is not something that can be offered or taken away.
Freedom is a state of mind . A state that does not wait for any form of approval, a state free from fear , a state that could be temporary or permanent.But I would definitely not deny that this depends on external factors.In the End it all depends on the nature of one's mind.This is how I would prefer to deifne the term 'FREEDOM'.
Acts of freedom can be harmful as well as harmless. Questionable question is who decides this ?
Doesn't the term 'law' implicitly mean some actions are permitted and some are not ? So why talk about 'freedom' and 'law' together?
Laws impose a certain way of living life. Life that resembles with the lives of fellow humans residing in the surrounding environment.
The beauty of the Indian law mentioned in this post, is it talks about preserving our diverse culture, about decency and morality.
Yes I do agree that "we do not practice what we preach". But why should this prove the 'law' itself as wrong? Just because it is different from the laws of other locality? Rather other developed locality?

Gops said...

Well Anonymous,

As you have said yourself - freedom does depend on external factors. Let me agree though that it does depend on one's own mind - after all, Ayn Rand was brought up in Russia, and that didn't affect her freedom in anyway. But my point was that (democratic) governments exist to provide an environment where freedom thrives. In that, our government has failed.

But to the points you've raised...

[quote]
Freedom is...a state free from fear
[\quote]
Requires an enabling government. Obviously there are exceptions, the Mahatma for instance - but I am only talking about freedom for common souls like mine.

[quote]
Acts of freedom can be harmful as well as harmless.
[\quote]

My freedom ends where yours begins. If my freedom is going to cause you harm, then you are not free, and we are not living in a free country.

[quote]
The beauty of the Indian law mentioned in this post, is it talks about preserving our diverse culture, about decency and morality.
[\quote]

What'll you say if tomorrow the government decrees that wearing jeans is indecent? Trust me, there is already ample support for such a move. As it is said - the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Do you know why this law will be used? To cater to those hooligans who can't tolerate a viewpoint other than their own. Further, who is to decide what is decent and what isn't?

[quote]
Just because it is different from the laws of other locality? Rather other developed locality?
[\quote]

Ah, I totally deserved this comment, didn't I? The law is an ass because it is self-contradictory - violating the same fundamental right of expression that it wants to prescribe. Not because it is different from what more civilized (usage intended) countries prescribe.