Tuesday, February 19, 2013

On Freedom of Expression

India is no longer a democracy. We are a hypocrisy. Our stated values and actions are poles apart.
This country was founded on the fundamental basis of value of human rights. Our founding fathers had the wisdom to write a constitution that would enshrine these human rights for everyone lucky enough to be born “Indian”. But, where are we today?

Yes you have the right to justice. But, we never told you how long it would take na. Yes you have the right to equality. Which means all of you will be treated equally badly. And most importantly, you have the freedom of expression- which means that you can say whatever you want as long as no one else hears it!

Government structures have evolved over centuries. Today, most societies in the world have come to the common conclusion that representative democracy is the best way forward. The system is not perfect. That’s why there are many checks & balances in place to make sure that the system doesn’t become stale and abused. There are two fundamental flaws though with democracy. One is that it takes time. To get even 50% of the people to form a common consensus is no simple task especially in larger countries. The bigger flaw with democracy, and one that we must be aware of at all times, is that though the government is elected at the behest of the majority, it doesn’t have to be that the majority is always right!

This is why we have fundamental rights. It is to protect the individual from the state. It clearly defines what you are entitled to. And come what may- these rights cannot be denied to you. The most fundamental of rights would be the right to freedom of expression. The very essence of being human is the ability to express one’s self. This expression could go against the prevailing norm of the day. And, this will be the acid test of how “civilized” we as a society are willing to be.

 It is difficult to clearly define the limits on the freedom of expression. Yes, we need limits. We can’t have guys going around town “expressing their rage” by shooting everyone in sight. Fundamentally, this expression should not involve the physical abuse of another person. What about the non-physical abuse? Now, this becomes a little tricky.

Say a woman walks past me naked. She is in no way physically involving me in her “expression”. How would I react? A part of me would be aroused. But, if I were with my family, then I would also be upset. It is indecent to appear nude in public places. It puts everyone else at a discomfort. When we are in the public sphere we must acknowledge that we are only tenants and not land-lords. We must behave in ways that will respect others’ rights. So which right of mine was the nude-lady infringing on? I would say it would be the “right to be left alone”. The right to be left alone/ the right to choice/ the right to privacy, becomes important in order to clearly define what can actually be designated as free expression. If a nude lady came out in a public space then that clearly abuses my rights and should be stopped. Maybe she’s protesting against AFSPA or for PETA. But, that doesn’t give her the right to invade my space. Now, if PETA wants to draw attention to its cause and says come and watch models nude and show your support- there’s nothing wrong with it. I’m being given a choice and the ladies are being allowed to express themselves.  

So, when it comes to freedom of expression, there must be a choice for the people. Now, with media, it is clear that we have this choice. If you feel Arnab Goswami is speaking rot today, you have the freedom to switch channels. If a movie touches a raw nerve then you have the choice to not go for it. It’s that simple.
But, all this is well when it comes to third persons. What if I’m involved directly? What if I felt someone was perpetrating lies about me and hurting my character and public image? Well, then in this case, the simple rule should be- “the truth must prevail”. If someone has said something rotten about me then they better substantiate it with proof, or, they must tender a public apology and remove the incendiary material forthwith. But, here again we must be careful with how this rule is applied. It should be the responsibility of the litigant to clearly define that the intent of the accused was libel/slander. This is important because if someone says- “Ajai doesn’t like cheese burgers” and if I go to court demanding proof of the same, then we are going in circles.

It is important to allow people to express themselves in the widest of ways possible. Only when one expresses an opinion can another grasp it. History is replete with examples of people who went against public opinion and had to make the ultimate sacrifice. Our modern societies need to ensure that individuals are given the space to express themselves without fear. It might be that the speaker is pointing an important fault in us. But, because of various reasons we are unable to see/ understand his/her views. With time and maturity society slowly begins to understand and appreciate the problem and starts to act on it. Public opinion takes a long time to shape. Democracy isn’t that we will always do things right, but, that eventually we will all find the right way. Freedom of expression is essential to ensure that it is so.

But, today in India, this freedom of expression is being abused by the political class. There have been many instances in the recent past where a twitter/FB update has sent a person to jail. Even the recent controversy over ‘Vishwaroopam’ was a clear political ploy. It becomes important for the courts and society to step up and stop this kind of abuse of our fundamental rights. This sets a dangerous precedent and one that could affect the way our society develops over the years.


Anonymous said...

:) nicely put. I believe "defamation" is a word that you ought to have used too, although you have used an example to that effect.
It's is difficult to separate the two- defamation and hurt. With Indian society being as it is- with people very nosy and "perception" playing a huge role, some amount of restriction in freedom of expression is necessary. But this phenomenon is global- The europeans tried to ban the burqa, the islamophobia in America is well known. One can never wipe out evil, but only keep it at bay.

chital_phenomenal said...

There is no freedom of expression cos we are clearly scared and insecure about another person's opinions. For eg: there was no need for banning Kamal's movie.. he merely expressed his opinions.. whether or not one watches it depends on his wish..

so freedom is being corrupted due to insecurities... nice post Ajay..

From chital, http://chital-iluvmylife.blogspot.com/