ByÂ Pranay Manocha:
Modern India had the great privilege of having its constitution drafted by such stalwarts and leading thinkers as B.R. Ambedkar, Jawaharlal Nehru, C.Rajagopalachari, Rajendra Prasad, Vallabhbhai Patel, Munshi, Mavalankar, Nalini Ghosh and Maulana Abdul Kalam Azad. These visionaries recognised that freedom of speech and expression must be guaranteed by the constitution as our fundamental right.
In fact, at the time it came into effect on January 26 1950, India was recognised as having laid the foundation to be one of the truly aspirational and leading democracies of the world. India gave its women and minorities equal rights to vote from inception. In contrast, the US did not remove voter discrimination against African-Americans until 1965 and Switzerland only granted its women the right to vote in 1971.
It is unfortunate that the advantages of India’s headstart and its leadership have been lost and turned into iron chains that keep us from moving forward towards our founders’ vision.
The freedom of speech originally enshrined in the constitution was among the most rigorously defined and protected in the world, comparable to the United States which continues to be a global leader despite recent setbacks in this area.
Unbeknownst in detail to many, Nehru drove the passing of the first amendment in 1951. There was political give and take, with Ambedkar reluctantly agreeing to compromise the fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression in exchange for provisions aimed squarely at backward classes — what we know today as reservations.
Nehru gained — he could curb criticism of his policies. Ambedkar gained — he became a cult hero for scheduled classes and tribes. India lost.
Criticism of Nehru’s policies was curtailed and he was able to embark us on a many decade long socialist era, in which we pretended to be non-aligned when in reality we leaned towards the USSR. We established and strengthened the licence raj. Corruption increased, profitable enterprises including banks were nationalised and multinationals were forced to leave India. We also fought many wars, some we won and others we lost or gave the advantage away. Through all this, the press, our media and activists fought for their freedom to report accurately but their ability to criticise those in power was restricted. Many Indians continue to believe the myth that we live in a free country. That is not true, we rank 140 out of 179 countries in press freedom; lower than Zimbabwe, Afghanistan and Ethiopia.
Today, we are in a much worse position than our founders could have ever imagined. Our founders believed that by protecting our right to protest and talk, they were giving us the tools using which we would eventually emancipate ourselves. Unfortunately, even that tiny freedom was not ours for long.
In 1947, we freed 32 crore people. Today, we imprison over 120 crore.