8/26/2006

India and Freedom of Expression.

The recent campaigns against M. F. Husain and blocking of various internet sites by the Indian government has prompted me to write this note. The outrage which bloggers have expressed against the government decision to block website has been quite impressive. But at the same time, as Kingsley pointed out in his blog title "Free Speech Free Riders", the outrage has been sometimes very ``selfish'' in nature. I mean, many people are okay with government blocking websites as long as its not theirs. The scariest part is that a NDTV poll "demonstrated" that a majority of Indians are okay if government blocks websites which are anti-national.

This brings me to the fundamental point of this article.

"How much of freedom of speech do we have in India ?"

The short answer is that there is no simple answer. A better way to look at the problem will be to compare India with various other countries in the world and see where it stands. If you compare with China or many other African and Middle Eastern countries, free speech in India is a paradise. But if you compare the 1862 Indian Penal Code (with some amendments) with the 1791 First Amendment in USA, the concept of free speech in India becomes really "free speech" with huge quotes around it. It is quite primitive and India has a long long way to go. One of the prime reasons is that sections of Indian Penal Code is sometimes very loosely defined and people and political parties interpret it according to their needs. Let me take the campaign against M. F. Husain by some self appointed, disillusioned protectionist of Hinduism, who think they own this religion. They claim they can use IPC 295A which states

"Whoever, with deliberate and malicious intention of outraging the religious feelings of any class of citizens of India, by words, either spoken or written, or by signs or by visible representations or otherwise, insults or attempts to insult the religion or the religious beliefs of that class, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to three years, or with fine, or with both."

Note the use of words like "deliberate" and "malicious intention". These are outright subjective and very difficult to judge and implement, whether the case is genuine or not. 295A also prohibits someone from critisizing someone else's views or beliefs. IPC is filled with such subjective cases which makes its misuse quite rampant. Another famous case of misuse is the loose definition of "cruelty" in IPC 498A, India's anti-dowry law.

Let me now quote the First Amendment from USA Bill of Rights.

"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."

I hope I am making myselves clear here. As you can see, there is very little room for interpretation in the First Amendment. You are right if you feel that there should be a limit to First Amendment in the sense that no one should be able to make "derogatory" or false statements about a living person, which could in principle hurt his/her job prospects, political career etc. Slander and libel laws are then there to protect the victims in such cases. But then, even if the statements are inherently "derogatory", First Amendment will allow it in cases where it is deemed necessary. For example, making defamatory statements against corrupt politicians, which can be establised to be true is protected by First Amendment.

Finally, I think the notion that something needs to be banned or censored because it hurts people's beliefs, whether it religious, political or some other belief, is flawed. Having such a law restricts freedom of thoughts and expression and also suppresses creativity and vibrancy. It also gives politicians a sharp and dirty tool to use it to their own purposes. Some examples which come to my mind are

  • Congress blocks blogs because their content "hurts" them.
  • Aubrey Menon's Rama Retold is banned because it "hurts" Hindu sentiments.
  • Seven states in India bans Da Vinci because it "hurts" some Christians.
  • BJP bans movies by Rakesh Sharma on Godhra and Anand Patwardhan on Nuclear Tests.
  • West Bengal bans Tasleema Nasreen's writings because it "hurts" some politicians.
  • The teleserial "Bible Ki Kahaniyan" came under fire because it potrays Abraham, who is considered a prophet according to Koran. Hence, NO ONE should potray him in images (or cartoons for that matter).
  • Congress bans Salman Rushdie's book because it "hurts" muslim sentiments. As a side note, India banned it even before Iran declared its fatwa. During the same Rajiv Gandhi government, The Last Temptation of Christ is also banned.
  • Violent riots erupt in Kerala (with incentives from Churches) following the release of a play scripted by P. M. Antony based on Nikos Kasantasakis’ famous novel The Last Temptation of Christ.
I guess I can keep continuing with tons of such examples. I only hope India comes up with somthing similar to the First Amendment in the near future. Let me end by quoting Gurudev's Chitto jetha bhayshunyo (Where the mind is without fear).

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;
Where knowledge is free;
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls;
Where words come out from the depth of truth;
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection:
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit;
Where the mind is lead forward by thee into ever-widening thought and action--
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.
As a quick trivia, let me quote the last two verses from the original Bengali, which is much harsher.
Lord Father, strike {the sleeping} Bharat (India) without mercy, so that it may awaken into such a heaven.