By Sakshi Abrol:
Just two days back, I received a message that left me bamboozled. It read,
Congress: 16 August ko agar Anna Hazare anshan par baithe toh unhe bhi waise hi kuchal denge jaise Baba ko kuchla tha. Forward to all: the blatant truth in its naked form. I do not know whether it was a hoax call to further tarnish the reputation of the Congress or something else. All I know is that the message was slap on the face of democracy in India.
Of late there has been a lot of debate and discussion on whether the crusade by ‘Yog- guru turned political activist’ Baba Ramdev was morally right and required at all in the first place. Many have branded Baba as a sham, an unscrupulous power-hungry agent of a particular communal identity. I do not have the audacity to declare these accusations leveled against him fictitious or just opportunistic since it is from the highest echelons of the decision-making body in place that all these charges are coming from.
Though, I fail to understand what political benefits will accrue to Baba and what sort of power will he get access to if the black money stashed in foreign banks comes back to the country. A corollary to another statement made by the honorable ministers in the saddles of power that I am skeptical about is, that is it really necessary for a person to belong to a particular political party to raise an issue in the public eye?
Why are socio-political issues so intricate yet important for the development of our nation always relegated to the periphery in the name of parochial issues like religious affiliation? Why do all issues that have the potential to tighten the noose around the neck of the powerful are generally brushed aside under the carpet? A simple logic says that the guilty would always try to hide facts but why can’t the thoughtful media zero-in on the pertinent issue. And why do the masses who are so central to the functioning of a democracy become party to such useless discussions? But for now let me leave you with some food for thought and continue our discussion further. If the reading of this piece of writing is rushed with may give an impression that I am standing to speak for Baba Ramdev.
Please do not pay heed to such impressions for they are just delusions. Also, my discussion here would not focus on whether Baba was trying to hold the government at gun point and if it is important to draw a line between genuine demonstrations and mass uprising intended to manhandle the government. I will also not delve into the technicalities of the Lokpal Bill though I firmly believe that all the denizens of this nation would have something or the other to speak on the topic. Looking at how sensitive and prudent its conceptualization within the rubric of an essay should be, I leave it for another occasion.
I do not intend to raise brows or perplex the readers with a forthright dismissal of all the relevant topics that can be discussed. There is a lot more to this issue than meets the batting of the eyelids. All I am going to do here is to present before you facts rather say constitutional facts pertaining to the ‘Freedom of Speech and expression’ that has been mentioned in our constitution. A constitutional validity of the recent spate of public demonstrations notably by Anna Hazare ji and then by the new face of controversy in India, Baba Ramdev would demystify a lot of fundamental questions gripping the ‘aam aadmi’.
There are some human rights that all the citizens of this democratic country have been bestowed with. These are inalienable rights and no citizen can be denied access to these rights subject to reasonable restrictions imposed by the Constitution itself. The crux of these rights is that in a democracy an individual is the paramount object and is only subjugated to the rule of law.
The Constitution of India contains the right to freedom, given in articles 19, 20, 21 and 22, with the view of guaranteeing individual rights that were considered vital by the framers of the constitution.
In a landmark judgment of the case Maneka Gandhi v. Union of India, the Supreme Court held that the freedom of speech and expression has no geographical limitation and it carries with it the right of a citizen to gather information and to exchange thought with others not only in India but abroad also.
The constitution of India does not specifically mention the freedom of press. Freedom of press is implied from the Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution. Thus the press is subject to the restrictions that are provided under the Article 19(2) of the Constitution. Before Independence, there was no constitutional or statutory provision to protect the freedom of press. The Preamble of the Indian Constitution ensures to all its citizens the liberty of expression. The heart of the Article 19 says: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion 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.”
The Supreme Court observed in Union of India v. Assn. for Democratic Reforms, “One-sided information, disinformation, misinformation and non information, all equally create an uninformed citizenry which makes democracy a farce. Freedom of speech and expression includes right to impart and receive information which includes freedom to hold opinions”.
In Indian Express v. Union of India, it was held that Freedom of press has three essential elements. They are: 1. Freedom of access to all sources of information, 2. Freedom of publication, and 3. Freedom of circulation.
Thus, time and again an individual’s freedom of speech has been substantiated by the judiciary but these rights are not exclusive and come with certain limitations. With the same token Clause (2) of Article 19 of the Indian constitution enables the legislature to impose reasonable restrictions on free speech under following heads:
- security of the State,
- friendly relations with foreign States,
- public order,
- decency and morality,
- contempt of court,
- incitement to an offence, and
- Sovereignty and integrity of India.
Reasonable restrictions on these grounds can be imposed only by a duly enacted law and not by executive action.
Reasonable restrictions can be imposed on the freedom of speech and expression, in the interest of the security of the State. All the utterances intended to endanger the security of the State by crimes of violence intended to overthrow the government, waging of war and rebellion against the government, external aggression or war, etc., may be restrained in the interest of the security of the State. It does not refer to the ordinary breaches of public order which do not involve any danger to the State.
In Kishori Mohan v. State of West Bengal, the Supreme Court explained the differences between three concepts: law and order, public order, security of State. Anything that disturbs public peace or public tranquility disturbs public order. But mere criticism of the government does not necessarily disturb public order. A law punishing the utterances deliberately tending to hurt the religious feelings of any class has been held to be valid as it is a reasonable restriction aimed to maintaining the public order.
The Constitution also guarantees the right to hold peaceful demonstrations without arms in our country.
Having presented the constitutional facts, it is now left to the discretion of the readers to decide whether the public demonstrations by Baba Ramdev were wrong? And if yes then what was right? The Delhi police action at midnight in the Ramlila Ground leaving scores of innocent people including women and children injured and a number of them missing?