Dec 07, 2023
Dec 07, 2023
The four basic principles of democracy are known as justice, equity, freedom and representation as the basic indicators of the liberty and human rights in any democratic society. Justice ensures fairness to keep society in order by protecting the rights of people wronged or suffered inter alia by punishing the wrong-doers; equity is the concept of providing equal provision of wealth, opportunities, and privileges; citizens shall have freedom to assembly, choice, speech, economic, academic, press and religion; and that every citizen must have the opportunity to vote for their representatives in the government according to own political views. Of all these provisions, the freedom of speech and expression is considered by many as the most vital and valuable factor in any healthy and vibrant democracy.
As a firm believer in democracy and democratic institutions, I firmly believe in the freedom of speech and, undoubtedly, "dissent" is an essential component of speech and, whether it is good or bad, it should be allowed and even respected. Indeed the criticism of government, institutions or people, both positive and negative, is part of the freedom of speech and expression; hence dissenting voices or opinions should neither be stifled nor discouraged. The question here is why it has become suddenly so evident, relevant and urgent in the present Indian society where it has escalated like a Cambrian Explosion*, if we call it in the scientific jargon. It is often portrayed as if anything bad which has ever happened in India is occurring since May 2014 after Mr Narendra Modi led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) formed the government at the Centre.
The way it is being projected by a section of media, political parties and intellectuals, it appears as is everything that is bad, everything that has ruined the Indian economy, employment, institutions, people, ethical practices, and so on, has occurred only after May 2014. Two key factors responsible for this state of affairs that are so often raised by many are intolerance and suppression of civil liberty. Growing instances of violence against minorities, mainly Muslims, and Dalits are quoted by advocates of this theory and even a new terminology "Linchistan" has been coined to describe India under the present ruling dispensation. Similarly, the same elements feel that that the freedom of speech and right to dissent is being stifled to curtail civil liberties. The author intends to have a close unbiased look at both the issues in a larger perspective including factual data from the previous regimes.
Intolerance: Has India Really Become a Linchistan?
Only recently in an article "Tolerance in India: A Propaganda or Reality", this author had explored some aspects of the issue and even exposed the designs of elements who in their appetite and passion to oppose and discredit the present ruling dispensation and its head in the country even have no aversion even in going to the extent of escalating their agenda which may not only damage the traditional secular fabric and harmony of the communities but also serve the agenda and interests of the enemy nations besides casting a negative image of the nation globally. Naseeruddin Shah is one such well known actor and celebrity who recently caused flutters by stirring up the hornet's nest in the name of growing intolerance and stifling of genuine voices in India. He is one person who has often been in controversy in the past for his behavior and remarks against other professionals and own colleagues in the Cine industry.
The controversy triggered by him around mid-December 2018 on intolerance had not fully settled down and he has fired yet another salvo aimed at the Modi government at the Centre. In yet another video produced for the national and international circulation and consumption under the aegis of the Amnesty International, a London based NGO boasting the cause of human rights, a grim faced Naseeruddin Shah while invoking the fundamental rights enshrined under the Indian Constitution is seen talking somewhat as under:
"...People raising their voice for genuine cause in the country are imprisoned; activists, writers and artists actors are stopped; journalists are being silenced; hate walls are being erected in the name of religion; innocent people are being killed; hate and crime remain unchecked in the entire country; ...those who are raising their voice against all this are being raided; their licenses are being cancelled; bank accounts are being frozen; and their voice is muzzled so that they desist from speaking truth! ...Had we really ever envisioned a nation where there is no place for the dissent, and poor and weak are suppressed".
(Translated from spoken Urdu/Hindi)
Then the video concludes by flashing that "India witnessed a massive crackdown on the freedom of expression and human rights defenders in 2018. Let's stand up for our constitutional values and tell the Indian government that its crackdown must end now." Going verbatim by Shah's regurgitate, one would wonder as if there is indeed a looming anarchy and rule of lawlessness all over the country and it is doomed to disintegrate. The ironical part of this prognosis is that the common man in the country and genuinely rational people do not perceive or see of what Shah's fertile mind has experienced and concluded, either in his imagination or with an agenda in mind. The fact is the country has never been politically so strong, socially so stable and economically so viable in the past. One feels sorry to note that this is the same person who has earned, name, fame and wealth in the country without any discrimination, but now abusing the democracy, dispensation and citizens of the country with the allegations of intolerance and stifling of the freedom of speech and/or dissent.
But this certainly agitate the minds of conscientious people as to why such stories are cooked and repeatedly planted by the media and some people, what is the purpose and who all are behind this fusillade of periodic yet systematic disinformation and crusade against the majority community and nation. I recall after a few mob-violence incidents, same people started casting India as a "Linchistan" as if there were no mob violence or riots in the past. There is no other country in the world with such a large population and diversity on social and religious parameters. Recently, after the arrest of a few urban naxals in connection with a conspiracy of Bhima-Koregaon violence near Pune in January 2018, a narrative was floated that India is experiencing the worst emergency like situation where civil rights activists, writers, artists, intellectuals are all gagged. Similarly, a plethora of other narratives such as the judges are being coerced, institutions are targeted and ruined, and elections are rigged, and so on, have been systematically taking rounds. Notwithstanding all such propaganda, same people also make allegations that "dissent" is not allowed and the freedom of speech is suppressed.
Now in the context of growing intolerance and India being casted as the Linchistan citing mob-violence in public places, let us take a few examples from the recent past and analyze them:
Incidentally, in the above cases only first two received media attention and wide publicity. All other cases were simply reported as an ordinary crime in the local papers and forgotten thereafter. Further, the media lost interest in the second case after investigation revealed it otherwise than initially projected. In the remaining four cases, victims were either Dalit or Muslim but accused in all cases were Muslims, and the media, politicians or civil rights activists did not find them worthy enough for similar attention and reporting. These are only few illustrations randomly picked up, the actual number of crimes during the same period may be large irrespective of the caste, creed and religion. Whether it is Mohammad Akhlaq suspected for cow-calf slaughter and keeping beef or Pehlu Khan for the alleged illegal transportation and trade of cattle or Sawan Rathod for suspected theft or other incidents of love affairs, and so on, nobody of any community has any right to punish. At best they can apprehend the suspect and hand over to the police allowing the law to take its course. The point the author wants to make is that a crime should be treated as the crime against humanity and it is not necessary to always look at it from the religion or caste angle. Why is it so that a large section of media, politicians and intellectuals have a selective approach in reporting or highlighting the instances of crimes? Why is so that the crimes against the Hindus and minority groups like Sikhs, Jains and Buddhists do not receive same attention as the ones relating to the Muslims and Christians?
According to a JNU professor who recently spoke with data in a seminar, there has been more than hundred attacks and attempted lynching by Muslims mobs on Dalits, Muslims and Hindus during the last one year or so, and of this over thirty-six attacks have been on Dalits alone, but these incidents didn't make any news, instead simply slipped off and subsided. Recently, the rape and murder of an eight year old Muslim girl at Kathua, Jammu made national and international headlines for weeks together; on the other hand, there are numerous incidents where the victim is a Hindu girl and perpetrators Muslims but such cases are seldom given attention and more often not reported even. Rape against woman is a heinous crime simultaneously defiling her body and injuring soul, and each such incident needs equal condemnation and guilty punished irrespective of his religion or caste. Question is why a section of media, political parties and civil rights activists are so selective in choosing crimes against humanity based on the considerations of cast, creed and religion.
In the context of allegations of intolerance and India being casted as "Linchistan", the author suggests that readers have a look at the following table to make their own opinion or conclusion. The table depicts the recorded data comprising of the communal violence in India under the categories of the number of incidents, deaths and injuries since 2005. Ordinarily such violence is one in which more than two perpetrators and victim(s) of different communities are involved. The period involves two UPA governments led by the Congress and one NDA (current) government led by the BJP and for the sake of brevity the data of only first three years of the three regimes have been included. The year 2008 (not in table) under the UPA regime experienced the peak with 943 incidents and 167 deaths. The data does not support claims of sudden upsurge in mob violence after 2014 except more reporting on cow vigilantism; instead the number of incidents and deaths show a slight declining trend.
Although ignominies are constantly dumped on India nationally and internationally for the alleged intolerance and violence, the recorded Wikipedia trend suggests that the India-wide average communal/mob violence fatality rate has been 0.01 person per 100,000 people per year over the recent years while the world's average annual death rate from such violence has been 7.9 per 100,000 people in the recent years. Notwithstanding, the violence against humanity less or more cannot be justified by any means.
Status of Freedom of Speech and Expression
After the change of government at the Centre in 2014, the years 2015 was marked with nightmarish events of agitation and movement against the alleged growing intolerance and restrictions on the freedom of speech and civil liberty under the new dispensation led by the right-wing national party. The protestors were the left and some left-centric political parties and a large section of intellectuals, liberals, civil rights activists and students of some central universities. It was also characterized by a spate of writers, poets and artists returning their Sahitya Akademi and other coveted awards to protest against the alleged intolerance and in support of their right to dissent following the murder of few rationalists and Dadri lynching incident.
Two cases which received the maximum controversy and adverse publicity against the central government and nation in 2015-16 are briefly as under:
The Indian communists, some political parties and traditional secularist/liberal brigade are often found to have their fantastic views on the issues like the nationalism, secularism, tolerance and freedom of expression. The point is if the people guilty and convicted of the acts of sabotage and blowing aircraft, killing hundreds of people in indiscriminate fire and bombing and attack on the Parliament are glorified by some students and other sympathizers of this country, how far such acts are justified in the name of the freedom of expression, civil liberty and right to dissent. Are they not ignoring and indirectly justifying the loss of hundreds of other human lives and damage to the public property? When some students or other people openly talk or make inflammatory speeches about breaking and destroying the nation, to what extent the freedom of speech and right to dissent should be stretched and if it is not then what else is sedition!
Time and again, it is being circulated by the same set of people that the intolerance is growing, the freed of speech is stifled and the right to dissent is denied. In any healthy and vibrant democracy, free and fair dissemination and circulation of the electronic and printed material in the form of books, magazines, other periodicals and newspapers could be a good indicator of the freedom and fundamental rights in the country. Films are another very important medium of the reflection of such values in the contemporary society. As the major grievance and complaint against the present ruling dispensation appear to be the intolerance, stifling of the freedom of expression and denial of the right to dissent, let us briefly talk and analyze the position of these factors in the earlier regimes.
In the context of upholding the fundamental rights and the freedom of speech, the former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi is one who is so often blamed by people particularly for the excesses incurred during the 21-month period Emergency with effect from 25 June 1975 until its withdrawal on 21 March 1977. During this period, the fundamental rights of citizens were suspended, civil liberties curbed and the political opponents were imprisoned for most of the Emergency period with almost total censorship on the press. For the argument sake, suppose we take the Emergency as an aberration, how many people really know about numerous instances during Jawaharlal Nehru's time when the freedom of the speech and expression was curtailed and dissenter were suppressed and jailed. This gains significance also from the point of view that Nehru was considered an epitome of the freedom of expression and civil liberty. A few such instances from his time as prime minister are briefly enumerated here:
The Constitution (First Amendment) Act, 1951: It was moved at the behest of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in May 1951 and enacted by the Parliament in June 1951. The background was the banning of a weekly journal "Cross Roads" by Romesh Thapar by the Madras State for publishing critical views on Nehruvian policy. Thapar petitioned the Supreme Court against the ban which led to the landmark judgment of "Romesh Thapar vs The State of Madras" on 26 May 1950, first of this kind on free speech and public order. Eventually, the said amendment of the Constitution of India against the stated "abuse of freedom of speech and expression" was passed by the Parliament which also set the precedent of amending the Constitution to overcome judicial decisions in fulfillment of the government's perceived policies and programmes. Incidentally, Syama Prasad Mookerjee, founder of the Bhartiya Jan Sangh - a precursor of the present Bhartiya Janta Party, was then in Congress and was one who opposed this amendment.
Poet Mazrooh Sultanpuri Jailed: The poet was then in the process of establishing self as a lyricist and songwriter but his leftist leanings put him into trouble. He wrote a poem criticizing the policies of Pandit Nehru and cited him as ?Hitler ka hai chela?in the same poem. He was asked to apologize by the Congress government in Maharashtra but refused to obelize. For his dissenting views, he was prosecuted for sedition and jailed in 1949 for two years.
Dismissal of 1st Communist Government in Kerala: In 1957 Kerala elections, EMS Namboodiripad led first Communist government was elected in power through the democratic process. After a brief Vimochana Samaram (Liberation Struggle) by the Catholic Church, Muslim League and Nair Community of Kerala in 1958-59, the Namboodiripad government was dismissed by the federal government led by Prime Minister Nehru.
Books Banned: Traditionally, India has a long history of banning books written by the foreign and Indian authors on the grounds of creating disharmony, falsification of facts, seditious contents, and so on. A few such cases are illustrated here from the Nehruvian era.
These are few books quoted from the period when Jawaharlal Nehru was Prime Minister of India otherwise a large number of books have also been banned mostly by the earlier Congress governments at the Centre. Some of these books might have indeed hurt the sentiments of many Indians and arguably their ban was justified. If that be so, should the action of some Indians to support the cause of the dreaded terrorists and criminals be justified now in the name of freedom of expression or right to dissent? It may be topical to quote that those days, a famous cartoonist Shankar had invited ire of many politicians through his cartoons and Nehru is known to have told him, "Don?t spare me, Shankar", an iconic statement so often cited to glorify his belief in democratic values and freedom of expression. The present political dispensation under Narendra Modi is not known for banning any book during his last four years.
In post-Nehruvian era too, many films were banned. Film Andhi was banned in 1975 during the Emergency on the suspicion that the film was based on Indira Gandhi's family life. A political parody Kissa Kursi Ka (1977) was banned and the remake of the film was later screened with the changed cast. Another film, 'Amu' based on the 1984 anti-Sikh riots after the assassination of Indira Gandhi was initially denied permission for screening but was later released with A(dult) certificate imposing severe cuts. The controversy about 'Padmavati' of Sanjay Leela Bhansali had been projected by the media, political parties and pseudo-intellectuals as a major instrument to whip the federal government the name of freedom of expression as if the banning of cinema and books is something very serious and new phenomenon in this country. And it was being projected so when the film was not actually banned but slightly deferred in consideration of the sensitivity and strong opposition by a section of the Indian audience. It was released with minor amendments including the change in name to 'Padmavat'.
Now let us also examine some controversies and banning of books, cinemas, plays etc for political reason to serve specific needs of a political family. Michael Edwards' book "Nehru: A Political Biography" (1975) were banned purportedly citing grievous factual errors but one may seriously debate if it was really so? The erstwhile private secretary of Nehru (1947-59), MO Mathai wrote a book in 1978 titled "Reminiscences of Nehru Age", which was banned for the disclosures made about the family in a chapter titled "She". Later the author compromised by suppressing the said chapter. Salman Rushdie's book "The Moor's Last Sigh" (1995) was unofficially banned by pressurizing its Indian distributor to abstain from selling the book. Later punlishers approached the Supreme Court which disposed of the case in February 1996 by declaring the ban unconstitutional. Yet another book "The Red Sari" (2010), authored by Spanish Javier Moro, remained under limbo after a famous politician-cum-lawyer wrote a letter to the publisher demanding removal of books from the shops. It was allegedly based on the life of the Woman head of the dynastic family violating her private life. The book was finally released in 2015.
While the books mentioned in the preceding paragraph were stopped mainly to protect the honour of the dynastic family, many books have been banned for the appeasement of chosen minorities. While "The Last Temptation of Christ" cited earlier was banned to appease Christians, Salman Rushdie's "The Satanic Verses" (1988) was banned in order to appease the Muslim community fundamentalists who felt it insulted the legend of Prophet Muhammad. Another casualty was Ram Swarup's book "Understanding Islam Through Hadis" (1982) again for the appeasement of the Muslim fundamentalists in the country. Yet another book, Taslima Nasreen's novel "Lajja" (1993) dealing with the naked realities about the atrocity on Hindus in Bangladesh was banned. The plea was, however, taken that it was offensive to Muslims and insulting to Islam.
A few other well-known restrictions on the freedom of expression and right to dissent during the Nehruvian era are briefly as follows: (1) import of any newspaper that undermined friendly relations with any state was banned; (2) import of any (perceived) obscene drawing or painting was banned; (3) Historian Dharampal was arrested and imprisoned in Tihar jail along with two associates Narendra Datta and Roop Narayan for criticizing Nehru post 1962 Indo-China War on issues inter alia including the freedom of expression; (4) President Rajendra Prasad's speech was barred from distribution; (5) Draconian Press (Objectionable Matter) Act, 1951 was passed; (6) Sharat Babu's play 'Mahesh' and Tagore's plays 'Gora' and 'Bishorjon' were banned; (7) Balraj Sahni's play 'Jadu Ji Kursi' was banned; (8) and Harmonium and Western Pop Music were banned on All India Radio.
The author does not endorse that Pandit Nehru should personally be held responsible for all the above restrictions as it is a system after all and the prime minister is not individually watching or deciding every such case. The author is citing these instances because there is a tendency of media, politicians and pseudo-intellectuals these days to blame Prime Minister Modi for any damn thing that goes wrong anywhere in the country. Hence by the same logic and analogy, the similar principle must apply to all prime ministers past and present. As is evident, well known poet/historian/columnists were jailed or fired just for criticizing the first prime minister of the country and the incumbent prime minister is being publicly addressed as "Chor" (thief) without an iota of evidence or lead. I recall the ignominies freely sprung on him by the political opponents in the past with no strings attached include with the adjectives like mass murderer, poisonous person, liar and fraud, Maut ka Saudager, biggest Gunda, Butcher of Gujarat, Jallad, and so on. What more freedom of expression is required by such media, political leaders and intellectuals/liberals?
Lastly, this analysis would remain incomplete if the urban naxals depicted as the civil right activists are not mentioned. When Naseeruddin Shah speaks in the video about the right people raising their voice being jailed, in the background images of the proclaimed civil rights activists is flashed who have been detained recently for their suspected anti-national activities. They have been formally arrested by the Maharashtra police only after the Supreme Court refused to grant them any further relief in view of the cognizable evidences produced by the police against them. Ironically, it is the same country where reputed poet and historian were jailed for merely criticising Nehru's policies, what to mention about the Emergency excesses during 1975 to 1977, and now a section of media, politicians and intellectuals are justifying even anti-national activities of people endorsing public violence in the name of civil rights and freedom of expression. So in the eyes of Shah and such other sympathizers, they are civil rights activists but in the eyes of the law of the land, they are accused of sedition engaged in the larger conspiracy against the state.
Being Selective in Dissent is Bad
The Constitution of India provides to its citizens the Freedom of speech and expression under the Article 19, as one of the six freedoms. It states: Everyone has the right to freedom of speech and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers. One could express ideas and opinions freely through speech, writing, and other forms of communication but without deliberately causing harm to others' character and/or reputation by false or misleading statements. The freedom of press or media is also part of the freedom of expression. The clause (2) of the same article specifically provides that nothing in sub-clause (a) of clause ( 1 ) 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 the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency or morality or in relation to contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence. Thus the stated freedom of speech and expression comes with certain responsibility and riders too.
On the issue of the Freedom of Speech while some people realize the true nature and value of this liberty enshrined in the Indian Constitution and speak responsibly duly exercising restraints including ones having a bearing on the national security and international relations but there others who feel that they have right to speak or write anything that comes to their mind, including whatever best serves their interests. This free for all tendency often creates flutter, confusion and conflicts among the people of different communities and individuals with varying ideologies, at times even to the extent of jeopardizing the institutional and national interests. Talking of breaking the nation into pieces or resorting to violence to achieve intended goal by some people are potential causes of conflict and when a section of media, political parties and intellectuals support them in the name of the freedom of expression or right to dissent due to some vested interests, they too become a party responsible for this anarchy and disaffection.
The author absolutely favours the freedom of speech and even agrees that the dissent, whether good or bad, should be allowed so long it does not jeopardize the harmony among communities and security of the nation. When people criticize the government or any programme and policy, it should not be mere disinformation or falsification of facts. Obviously, when people try to paint as if everything has gone bad since May 2014 and till then everything was alright, say there was no mob-violence and communal clashes, there was absolute freedom of speech and expressions, economy and employment was in great shape, every institution was absolutely working fine, and so on, quite obviously they spread only untruth and disinformation with malicious intent. Data, facts and evidences illustrated in the foregoing paragraphs are sufficed to vindicate this point.
As long as the dissent does not create disaffection and panic among the people and communities, it should be treated as healthy and acceptable. However, the dissent that creates fissure and fear is certainly bad. The author's objection is about the bad dissent that leads to scaremongering. The other major objection is about the selectivity in reporting. It may be true that instances of mob-lynching have occurred on account of the sensitivity among the majority community due to traditional belief about the cow protection and prevention of cow-slaughter. But singling out cases and victims of only particular community or caste for reporting and consequent publicity of intolerance and atrocity is unfair and is indeed an instrument of scaremongering when all kinds of crimes including mob-violence take place involving all communities in such a large country. A crime is crime and a criminal has no religion or cast as he (or she) may belong to any cast or religion. Need of the time is that everyone takes it in the same spirit.
(*The Cambrian is first Geological period of the Paleozoic era in the evolutionary history which marks an important point in the history of life on Earth; it is the time when most of the major groups of animals first appearrd in the fossil record. This event is often called the "Cambrian Explosion" because of the relatively short time over which large diversity of forms appeared.)
More by : Dr. Jaipal Singh