The recent spat and accompanying violence perpetrated by various fringe groups (especially the Karni Sena) over the film “Padmaavat” aptly demonstrate the lack of substantive freedom of speech and expression in the world’s largest democracy. The film faced unprecedented restrictions in the history of Bollywood – from missing its initial release date of December 1, 2017 to being forced to change the title from “Padmavati” to “Padmaavat”, to the filmmaker’s and actors’ lives being constantly threatened.
Even after being approved by the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC), the highest authority in matters of film certification, the film was banned by the state governments of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh under the influence of fringe groups – an apt example of how much heed governments pay to institutions like the CBFC .
Finally, the Supreme Court had to be petitioned to get these illogical bans removed. “Padmaavat” was not an exception; rather, the history of Bollywood has been a history of illogical restrictions imposed upon filmmakers by institutions like the CBFC. Some films to have suffered a similar fate include “Lipstick Under My Burkha”, “Ae Dil Hai Mushkil” and “Udta Punjab”. However , it should be highlighted that the case of fringe groups taking a centre stage and becoming a decisive factor in influencing the release of a film has rarely happened before “Padmaavat”.
This is only one aspect hampering freedom of speech and expression. It is pertinent to discuss various nuances of this right here. The Constitution of India under Article 19(1)(a) has provided each citizen a fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression. It implies that every citizen has the right to express their views, opinions, beliefs and convictions freely by word of mouth, writing, printing, picturing or in any other way.
Though fundamental, the State can impose reasonable restrictions on the exercise of this right on the grounds of sovereignty and integrity of India, security of the state, friendly relations with foreign states, public order, decency or morality, contempt of court, defamation, and incitement of violence. But a proper demarcation between restriction and freedom has not been drawn and thus, at times, various governments have misused this weapon in their hands for their vested interests .
Though freedom of press does not find a separate mention, it is a part of Article 19 (1)(a) as per the decision of the Supreme Court. India is ranked 136th out of 180 nations in the World Press Freedom Index by Reporters Without Borders. This is a big blot on the high democratic credentials India boasts of.
As per media watchdog Hoot’s 2017 report, 54 journalists came under attack in 2016-17. What the stories behind each attack clearly bring to the fore is that journalism – especially investigative reporting – is increasingly becoming a dangerous occupation.
If the increasing attacks on journalists is worrisome, so is the fact that the state wields a strict baton when it comes to news that may not be to their liking. The Andhra Pradesh-based Sakshi TV discovered to their surprise that their outspoken coverage of the Kapu agitation – led by a former minister – left their channel blocked in the state.
Andhra Pradesh is not the only state to have used these means of censorship. In Kashmir, after Burhan Wani’s killing, the media was harassed and censored, with two of the largest newspaper offices raided and printing presses shut down. The Kashmir Reader, which was doing on ground reporting of the situation in the Valley found itself labelled ‘anti-national’ and banned for three months.
On the national front , the present government has been widely criticised for trying to put a one-day ban on NDTV in November 2016 due to the allegation that it showed sensitive details regarding the militant attack on the Pathankot airbase. The June 2017 CBI raid on the offices and house of NDTV executive Prannoy Roy has been described by the media fraternity as direct assault on their independence.
Apart from this, violence has been inflicted by groups who think content unfavourable to them has been broadcasted. Satish Deshpande, a professor of sociology at the University of Delhi, thinks the government’s failure to condemn this violence has contributed to its normalisation and, in turn, an increase in self-censorship.
The World Press Freedom Index, too, noted that self-censorship is on the rise in Indian mainstream media. Another important issue to be highlighted here is the ever-increasing use of sedition laws beginning with the JNU incident – over 35 cases were registered in 2016 under sedition charges (Section 124A of the IPC).
Jingoistic political bodies like the ABVP have created tense environments throughout educational institutions. An example of this would be what took place in Ramjas College when Umar Khalid was invited for a literary event in the campus. Archaic sedition laws at least require to be reviewed, if not deleted.
Also, according to The Hoot, the internet was shut down 31 times in India in 2016, and 14 times in 2017 ( till May). These internet shutdowns take place under Section 14 of the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC), despite there being questions regarding the constitutional validity of such actions. This certainly highlights the government’s incompetence to handle the situation through other means. Instead, they wilfully take away the right of citizens to connect themselves throughout the world, which has became a necessity of 21st century .
All this aptly shows that citizens’ freedom of speech and expression is restricted on various counts and most times on baseless reasons. This trend has certainly increased with the coming of the new government at the Centre in 2014. It’s high time that the government should understand the importance of this right and the adverse effects arbitrary restrictions have on the functioning of our democracy.
The judiciary could also play a vital role in protecting the citizens’ rights by drawing a clear demarcation between freedom and restrictions so that misuse by the government becomes difficult. The civil society should maintain its vigour and enthusiastically fight against every arbitrary restriction put up by the government. Also, fringe groups and jingoistic elements should be unitedly fought against to maintain the essentially democratic charter of our country. Lastly, it would be in the interests of citizens to obey reasonable restrictions. All these would surely require some time to become reality but it would certainly ensure a freer and happier society in the future.