By Anshul Tewari:
What is common between All India Bakchod, Perumal Murugan, MF Hussain, Salman Rushdie, Wendy Doniger and Shaheen Dhada? All of these were silenced, either by the moral police or the Government, and their right to freedom of speech and expression was snatched away from them. What all hailed as the ‘era of India‘ has been slyly turned into the ‘era of information-controlled-speech-deprived-development-hungry-India’ where our country’s economic and nationalistic aspirations clash directly with our fight for our basic rights. What’s more interesting is how this struggle also clashes with India’s growing intolerance towards people from oppressed communities.
That political and religious groups have clamped down on free speech is nothing new. While All India Bakchod is bearing the brunt of “hurting sentiments” by using “vulgar” language among consenting adults who paid to watch the free flow of politically incorrect comedy – in 2012, 21 year old Shaheen Dhada was arrested under Section 66A of the IT Act for posting a Facebook update, showing her discontent with the Mumbai shut-down after the death of former Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackrey. Shaheen and her friend Renu Srinivasan, who had “liked” the post, were arrested the same night and charged with “creating or promoting enmity, hatred or ill-will between classes”, and for insulting or outraging religious feelings(?) and violating Section 66A of the Information Technology Act for online speech deemed “grossly offensive or of menacing character”.
While Dhada and Srinivasan were ripped off of their right to express themselves, the case raised some very important questions about the draconian Section 66A, which was added to the Information Technology Act in 2008, and passed without a single debate in the Lower House of the Parliament. The section states that any message sent out electronically that is “grossly offensive or has menacing character” with the purpose of “causing annoyance or inconvenience or to deceive or to mislead the addressee or recipient about the origin of such messages,” shall be punishable with a fine and a prison term, which may extend to three years. The section was intended to curb the misuse of communications services such as SMS, MMS and email through the sending of offensive messages or spam – but has since been misused at multiple occasions to curb free speech of many Indians.
To add to 66A, in April 2013, the Indian Government set up the Central Monitoring System (CMS), aimed at enabling the government to monitor all phone and Internet communications in the country. The formation of CMS raises some serious concerns about the abuse of such a system against people and institutions who dissent, offend or protest.
A Google+ Hangout organized by OurSay and Youth Ki Awaaz in 2013 with the then Minister of IT and Communications Milind Deora raised this pertinent question as well. Nikhil Pahwa, founder of MediaNama and a constant critic of 66A asked the minister about the kind of legal infrastructure that the CMS was building and how “it infringes upon the rights of free speech and privacy, and leaves the citizens with a potential disaster with the Governments to come”. That CMS could be misused was clear when the minister went on to accept that 66A was misused as well.
Human Rights Watch, a global human rights organization, in a post quotes Cynthia Wong, a senior Internet researcher – “The Indian government’s centralized monitoring is chilling, given its reckless and irresponsible use of the sedition and Internet laws. New surveillance capabilities have been used around the world to target critics, journalists, and human rights activists.”
“What is freedom of expression? Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist.” – Author Salman Rushdie
One of the biggest arguments against free speech is that there is a fine line between free speech and hate speech, that free speech should not border on threatening national security and that it should not harm the religious or cultural ethos of India. This was also one of the reasons why the All India Bakchod’s Roast came under fire. However, is free speech for a select few only? Political leaders engaging in hate speech and making communal remarks openly have often caused riots as they hid under the garb of the very same fundamental right they are out to snatch from others. What showed the failure of our society is when All India Bakchod did harmless, paid-for mudslinging on consenting adults, watched by those who consented to watch it, and people chose to have a problem with it – and the most iconic comment came from Ashoke Pandit of the censor board.
What also needs to be noted here is that hate speech leading to disruption of peace is not an issue that needs to fall under the ambit of free speech. It points towards a more systemic problem in our society. It is not hate speech that breeds violence first – it is the culture of intolerance and oppression that breeds hate speech. To tackle hate speech, we cannot ban it and believe that we stopped it. Hate speech, or free speech that harms, will find a way to propagate itself and cause disruption. What we really need to talk about and tackle is the culture of violence and intolerance.
For the longest, consciously or sub-consciously, we as a society have bred violence against various forms of free expression. From dictating what women should wear, to deciding what is ‘allowed’ and what isn’t. Heck, we even teach our children how to behave with people ‘different’ from us by virtue of the religion they chose to practise, or the caste or class they belong to. We ensure that they don’t discuss or debate the status quo, and that they forever toe the established line. In this, we directly or indirectly build a culture of intolerance towards anyone who disagrees with us, or criticizes our notions and beliefs, be it political, religious or otherwise.
Freedom of speech is absolute, and it is where your fight starts
With the new Government taking shape since 2014, and the Hindu right emerging fast, we are already experiencing interesting times vis-a-vis free speech. However, the threat is not just the Hindu right, or any other religious or political extremist ideology or group. The real threat is our lack of participation and willingness to put up a fight against free speech violation on our home turf. When a group of European artists gets murdered by terrorist organizations, it is easier for us to post “Je Suis Charlie” and go about our way. But when repeated free speech violations happen around us, we turn a blind eye towards them.
Freedom of speech is the key to address some of the most pressing problems of our times. Snatching away of tribal lands and then not letting them speak about it openly, rampant demolition of urban slums for political motives and then silencing the rights of the slum dwellers to highlight those issues, slapping sedition charges against those who question the basis of our culture and nationalistic beliefs, banning books, art, literature and even spoken word, are gross violations of what forms the very basis of a democracy.
As Bill Durodie rightly said in a recent piece, “Freedom of expression is absolute or it is nothing at all. It cannot be parcelled out so that we are only free at particular times or in specific circumstances. That’s how it becomes a privilege rather than a right. That’s how the self-appointed guardians get to decide what is and isn’t acceptable.”
Your fight for your rights begins with your fight for free speech – and now is when we need to start.