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Are Court Proceedings Against Kunal Kamra Really An Attack On Freedom of Speech?

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History is written by the victors. The narrative matters so much that it ends up determining who the good ones were and who had ‘villains’ labelled on the legacy of their lives.

Kunal Kamra has issued a very powerful statement on the initiation of court proceedings against him. But as tempting as it is to take sides and label the heroes and the bad guys in this story, I’d like to urge you to take a journey with me and view this entire incident by listening to both sides of the story.

Let’s Understand The Context Of The Debate

I am an advocate for freedom of speech and expression. I believe democracy works only if there is freedom of speech. But there are reasonable restrictions to that freedom of speech.

And to ensure freedom for one, another’s freedom has to be guaranteed in a way that prohibits him from using that freedom to harm another. The point being, absolute freedom of speech would cause chaos.

If you hold your freedom dear, you must understand in what circumstances that freedom is liable to be criticized and restrained. The culture of social media has made it too easy to be swayed by mass opinion.

And if, as a left-wing liberal journalism student whose very profession works on the guarantee of freedom of speech, I am willing to educate myself on both sides of the story before forming an opinion. I urge you to do so too with me.

Representation image. Kamra tweeted a picture of the Supreme Court wrapped in a saffron flag.

And at the end, we may not agree with the perspectives we’ve formed on the issue, and that will be perfectly okay. But if, till the end, we’ve shown the patience to listen and understand where those opposing perspectives are coming from, we will have at least understood the concept of democracy. And I consider that a win.

The Supreme Court of India has no right to punish valid criticism of its judgments. The judgments made by human decisions are open to the possibility of being imperfect and consequently to criticism. However, the court has the right to punish unjustified criticism of itself. Let’s look at Karma’s tweets under the question to determine whether they fall in this category.

Opinions Against The Initiation Of Court Proceedings Against Kamra

Is our highest court of appeal so fragile that the remarks of a comedian are enough to shake its integrity and disturb its working? Is our pride so sensitive that it will force us to try to silence every voice which attempts to mock us? Kamra feels that SC has its interests aligned with the saffron party BJP. It is his opinion, and he is entitled to have one as well as publish it.

The SC enjoys a reputation of having a liberal, progressive approach on a majority of topics. Why then should it be bothered by criticism, be it Prashant Bhushan or Kunal Kamra. Surely, the SC has more pressing matters to attend to. And surely, SC has the option to give a befitting response to all its critics by the integrity of its work.

The SC has existed since independence and will outlive us. This institution cannot afford to launch a defence attack at every critic. If that is the case, it will be a rocky road ahead for the SC for a long time to come.

A democracy cannot thrive under the fear of dissent. Munawar Faruqui was arrested because his jokes on the Hindu religion offended religious sentiments. If I say tomorrow that I don’t believe in the concept of God, that religion, any form of it is completely fictional, how many religious sentiments will that offend? Is our faith so fragile, is our devotion so delicate that an individual’s attempt to mock it, shakes the very foundation of it?

The logo of Myntra was changed after an NGO for women found it offensive. A clothing brand was forced to change a logo that the majority never saw as offensive and only when the debate about it reached its peak that the audience realized that when seeing in a particular light, the logo could depict disrespect towards women. This issue has taken us closer to the concept of perspective.

Opinions In Favour Of Court Proceedings Against Kamra

Kamra tweeted a picture of the Supreme Court wrapped in a saffron flag. The intended message was that the SC is aligning its judgments to the interest of BGP and Hindu nationalism in general.

This message was problematic in many ways. SC is an independent institution and enjoys complete autonomy in its working for the sole reason that it can be an impartial judge. Atoning an allegation of the SC gone corrupt has the potential of interfering with the autonomy of the Supreme Court.

Kamra is a popular celebrity. And the thing that celebrities often tend to forget is that every word they utter has consequences. People respond to what they speak. Their opinions persuade the perspectives of millions. Especially in the present time, where actions can be taken in a second, one provocative tweet can cause more harm than expected.

SC is an independent institution and enjoys complete autonomy in its working for the sole reason that it can be an impartial judge

With tweets like “The J in Supreme Court stands for justice.”, Kamra has had made several offensive attacks on the highest judiciary body of India, including the lawyers of SC. Let’s take a look at the criticism of other institutions of power.

Police are constantly shown negatively in media, whether it be cinema or daily soap operas. Over years of this portrayal, this has created a similar perception of the police force in the eyes of the masses. The hypodermic needle theory states that subtle messages, when portrayed in media, cement the mass opinion on an issue.

If our institutions are attacked and put in a negative light for the heck of it, it will damage the belief of the public in democracy and the institutions working to safeguard it. Supreme Court and the lower courts of justice have time and again protected individuals and institutions against defamation and wrongful allegations.

Why must it now not use the same defence to protect its own integrity? Till what point of mockery should the SC wait till it’s allowed to say enough. Would we be willing to take the same amount of unfounded allegations without resorting to defence? Would any other institution prefer to stay silent and not respond to unjustified criticism?

Are we willing to hold ourselves to the same benchmark of patience? Why then do we expect the SC to act like a saint? Let’s remember that at the end of the day, the individuals running the SC are humans who are liable to be affected by what’s being said about them.

Healthy criticism based on facts is essential for a democracy to function. But whether Kamra’s tweets fall in this category is subject to debate. Twitter indeed doesn’t offer the user the option to express themselves through nuanced essays, but a Twitter thread can be used to establish the context of one’s tweets. If Kamra has the time to publish ten tweets a day, he surely must also enjoy the time to establish context for them.

If the tables were turned, would Kamra be willing to accept these allegations against him? Had he approached the SC for justice in such a scenario, he would have been offered the same legal protection as the SC is providing itself in the present case.

At the end of the day, SC is protected with the same rights and privileges as any other Indian institutional body. It’s time we take responsibility for our words and actions. Proceedings against Kamra are not an attack on his freedom of speech but a restrain on his string of unfounded and misleading use of social media.

Personal Opinion

What may be offensive and unspeakable in someone’s perspective may be completely normal in another’s opinion. The difference of opinion and dissent is key to democracy and when the criticizers are shut, the road to democracy becomes obstructed.  This environment of fear will curb creativity and bold humor. Munawar Faruqui and Kunal Kamra are comedians, their statements are meant to be taken as comedy. It’s time they take their place back where they belong on the stage and not behind the bars.

There are individuals with serious offence cases against them who roam freely, there are pleas that haven’t been heard for ages. Surely, the courts hold these cases in at least equal if not more important than such contempt of court cases created out of tweets.

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