Freedom of speech in India: How far and no farther?

India may well have been a tolerant country for thousands of years, but the facts being what they are today, we need laws that will bring peace to the country today

India may well have been a tolerant country for thousands of years, but the facts being what they are today, we need laws that will bring peace to the country today
India may well have been a tolerant country for thousands of years, but the facts being what they are today, we need laws that will bring peace to the country today

We need to decide between absolute freedom of speech and national amity

I’m not a lawyer, and my point is not legal, but an exploration to find a way to cool the tempers.

Personally, I support free speech, subject to fair and reasonable restrictions as already laid down in the Constitution. But this article is not about my personal preferences either.

While Section 295 A of the IPC exists, which seeks to prevent deliberate and malicious acts, intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs, it doesn’t appear to work on the ground.

How else do we explain the fact that Nupur Sharma (and her likes) were provoked during the TV debates for days on end, but no one has been charged still under Section 295 A?

How do we explain the fact that Nupur Sharma made the statements that she made and has been able to escape arrest under Section 295 A?

How do we answer the question many raise that whatever Nupur Sharma mentioned are facts, and they have not been contested, but she has already been pronounced guilty, despite her apology which was not warranted anyway?

How do we explain the fact that a lot of religious conversion takes place across the country since independence, from Hinduism to Christianity and Islam, presenting Hinduism in a very bad and even vulgar light, and yet one has been punished under Section 295 A?

We can go on and on.

Most of the active politically and religiously interested leaders are ambivalent. They want to apply it selectively based on their convenience.

The fact is, there appears to be reluctance on the part of all political parties to apply Section 295 A rigorously, because all of them want to retain the right to indulge in outraging religious sentiments of others, though they don’t want to be at the receiving end of being hurt.

Also, absolute free speech champions are very vociferous opinion leaders, though few in number, and they raise a banner of revolt whenever the topic of restrictions to freedom of speech comes up for debate in public space.

Given the direction in which the national inter-political-party and inter-religious discourse are going, based on my limited interactions with common people, I think people are in favour of either making the laws tighter or for tighter implementation of the existing laws, whichever may work better.

The government, in consultation with the opposition through parliamentary committees, should conduct quantitative and qualitative surveys (by NSS or any other credible third-party agency) and if public opinion is favourable, bring amendments to the IPC such that those who hurt any religion or religious beliefs, will be quickly and surely punished soonest.

India may well have been a tolerant country for thousands of years, but the facts being what they are today, we need laws that will bring peace to the country today; there is no point in living in the past.

Without going into details of blasphemy or Article 295 A, which are not well understood by common people, the framing of the questions of the survey can be along the lines of what should be permitted, what should not be, what should be broad contours of the punishment for transgression, and how this should be implemented, in order to be most effective.

There are also debates going on, especially between Hindus and Muslims, like Mandir Vs Masjid, hijab, Uniform Civil Code, religious conversion, the content of history textbooks, the celebration of kings, naming of cities/ towns/ villages/ roads/ other public utilities, other conflicts like beef, pork, azan/ Hanuman Chalisa through loudspeakers, perceived disrespect to each others’ practices, beliefs and value systems, Triple Talaq, polygamy, etc.

All these lend themselves easily to faultlines.

By just amending IPC 295 A appropriately and resolving to implement it in letter and spirit, we may be able to minimize the tension in society caused by religious differences.

What is important is not who is right and who is wrong on such an emotional issue that stokes the passions of crores of people, but to see if there is a way we can bring about peace in the country, without any group losing its self-esteem and sense of belonging to the country.

Though being a noisy democracy used to help us because issues have been generally resolved through discussions and debate, we see disagreements leading to long-term enmity, hatred, and violence increasingly.

Even ordinary friends, colleagues, WhatsApp groups are full of extremely heated debates that break friendships and relationships.

In every religion, political party, and community, there are some who are looking for opportunities to take advantage of the freedom of speech, no matter what the consequences to others or the rest of the society would be. Do we want to pander to their absolutist notions of freedom of speech, or do we want to have a society peacefully living together?

I’m not expecting any side to compromise on their basic rights; I’m only trying to get everyone to also keep in mind their duties for the peaceful living of the whole country.

We need to decide between absolute freedom of speech and national amity. Quoting other western countries or societies won’t help, because others and we are like chalk and cheese.

What works in a more homogenous society may not work in a society full of diversity. We need not accept the notion of absolute freedom of speech espoused by many elites. We should only follow what suits us best.

What is important is not whether we have absolute freedom of speech, but whether we have a well-defined and well-accepted form of freedom of speech with widely accepted and documented restrictions, and whether we follow these uniformly across all religious, political, and other groupings.

The price we are paying for uncontrolled freedom of speech (though there are restrictions on paper) is, a vertical division in the form of polarization, economic, and social losses, and, overall diminished happiness of the entire society, is too high for us to afford.

Note:
1. Text in Blue points to additional data on the topic.
2. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of PGurus.

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An Engineer-entrepreneur and Africa Business Consultant, Ganesan has many suggestions for the Government and sees the need for the Govt to tap the ideas of its people to perform to its potential.

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