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The Idea Of Democracy

Freedom of Expression

Nirupam Hazra

"Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;
Where knowledge is free..."

Thus Nobel-laureate poet Rabindranath Tagore dreamed his country would look like. Individual free of any fear and knowledge free of any restriction are two defining characteristics of any progressive society and liberal democracy. India, notwithstanding, all its heterogeneity and diversity, quite successfully managed to survive and thrive as a democratic nation and a liberal society. Historically, India has been a land of dialogue, deliberation and argumentation as Amartya Sen points out with pride in his book The Argumentative Indian. The long tradition of argument, rational questioning and critical examination of ideas, has 'helped to make heterodoxy a natural state of affair in India' (Sen, 2006) and also played an important role to the development of democracy in the country. But the idea of democracy is not confined to choosing government through regular and almost free and fair election. Definitely, it is one of the salient features of any democracy and to which the people of the country have been ardently committed. But democracy in its broader sense stands for more than regular election. It is a way of life guided by certain values like freedom, tolerance and respect. So, any threat to these values is actually a threat to the very idea of democracy.

In recent past, India—the largest functioning democracy of the world, witnessed a disturbing trend where one of the very fundamental components of democracy—the right to freedom of speech and expression, came under attack, again and again. Books were banned, movies were censored, arts were vandalised, authors and artists were sent to exile. The tradition of heterodoxy, which is claimed to be the natural state of affair in the country, is threatened by parochialism and intolerance. The latest example of it was the self-imposed ban by the publisher of Wendy Doniger's book The Hindus: An Alternative History. Penguin Books, publisher of Wendy,defended the decision as their "moral responsibility to protect the employees against threats and harassment" and at the same time they blamed section 295A of Indian Penal Code which deals with insulting religion or religious beliefs. Though their defence was too weak to convince a liberal mind, their fears were not misplaced. Acts of harassment, vandalism and physical violence were carried out with impunity in almost every state of the country. There are also instances where government arbitrarily and proactively imposed ban.

In 1988, when controversy raged over Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses, Rajiv Gandhi government quickly banned the book. The decision was taken without following any proper procedure, not even by examining the merit of the allegation made against the book. What was more interesting is that the ban was imposed by finance ministry under Section 11 of Customs Act, which prohibits 'the import or export of goods of any specified description'.

In 2003, Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasreen's autobiography Dwikhondito was banned by the CPM-led Left Front government in West Bengal. Though the ban was held 'unjustifiable and untenable' by court, the author was made to leave the state when violent protest broke out in Kolkata. Even, the new Mamata Banerjee government is no different as it imposed ban on the telecast of a TV serial based on the script of Taslima Nasreen. There have been numerous incidents where governments either meekly genuflected or covertly colluded. But the issue is not about how a particular government acted to a particular incident of alleged outrage hurting of sentiments. The larger debate is about what is at stake and where are people heading towards?

Though freedom of expression is recognized as human right under Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and guaranteed as constitutional right in many countries, it has never been absolute. Limitations or restrictions are imposed on free speech for practical purposes to safeguard other ideals like privacy, stability and democratic equality. But what problematizes the entire debate is the extent to which the right to freedom of expression would be set free. One of the strongest proponents of freedom of expression and individual liberty, John Stuart Mill argued in his book On Liberty:

If all mankind minus one were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.

Why is it important to let the one person with contrary opinion to express himself or herself when the rest is of same opinion? It is important not only because it violates the human right of that person, but it also deprives the rest of an alternative opinion, a different perspective. Freedom of expression has an intrinsic value as well as instrumental value. The intrinsic value ensures that every individual, by virtue of being human, entitled to this freedom. Therefore it is recognized as one of the basic human rights. The instrumental value of freedom of expression promotes plurality of ideas, opinions and thoughts and thus helps the society evolve in more progressive manner. So, the right to freedom of expression is itself an end, at the same time, it is also a means to an end.

It is the instrumental value of this right that makes it more significant. Debate, dialogue, deliberation and dissent—any form of democratic engagement in any field of daily life is dependent on the idea of freedom of expression. Therefore, any attack on freedom of expression not only weakens the democratic foundation of a society; in a country like India, it poses a threat to traditional heterodoxy and cultural diversity. Unquestioning conformity without any critical examination only leads to stagnation and tyranny.

So, when a book is banned, a movie is censored, people are actually deprived of the other perspective, the other voice that is contrary to the prevailing or dominant one. It is not necessary that the other voice that challenges the dominant one is right or correct, but what is important is that there should be enough space for the contrary view to present itself. The voice of dissent or non-conformity, if seen in a larger perspective, actually brought progressive changes in the domain of caste, class and gender relationship. Similarly, it nurtured the practice of tolerance and promoted mutual respect. Hence, a ban or any such extreme action is self-defeating when it is not meant to serve any more significant purpose like pre-empting violence or communal tension.

In all the recent incidents, hardly there had been any chance of untoward event to take place. Still, whenever any controversy is raged, whenever any community or group finds their sentiment hurt, the first and the most convenient reaction was a ban. A ban easily heals the 'hurt sentiment' of the aggrieved group or community and it is the easiest way for the government to avoid further trouble without offending the group or community. But in the long run, it does not serve any purpose, rather it inflicts more harm. First of all, it gives rise to intolerance and impatience. A blanket-ban without proper objective examination of the allegation will only encourage more groups and communities to get their 'sentiment hurt' at slightest aberration and flimsiest provocation. Whatever goes against the grain of what a group believes or represents, can easily be termed as an insult. Secondly, it will end up bestowing more arbitrary power in the hands of State. It will give the State more reasons or excuses to authoritatively decide what its citizen would be allowed to read or watch. So, finally it will result into rapid shrinking of democratic space for free speech and rise of intolerance and extremism. Is India, the largest democracy, heading towards that destopic reality?

References:
Index of Customs Act, 1962; (http://www.cbec.gov.in/customs/cs-act/cs-act-idx.htm) Mill, J S (1978): On Liberty (Penguin Classics)
Sen, Amartya (2006): The Argumentative Indian: Writings on Indian History, Culture and Identity, (New Delhi: Penguin)
Universal Declaration of Human Rights, viewed on 16 February 2014 (http://www.un.org/en/documents/udhr/)

Frontier
Vol. 46, No. 48, Jun 8 - 14, 2014