One country means equal rights and freedoms for all, including freedom of speech, whether it be in UP, Karnataka, Bengal or elsewhere. Those who ignore deeds of some while focussing on a few are doing a disservice to the ideals they themselves profess
The so-called Babri Masjid in Ayodhya was unused for prayer by the Shia community for decades. When it was destroyed in 1992 by an out-of-control assembly of activists, an international uproar ensued. Media in the US and Europe had almost entirely greeted with silence the forcible reduction of the Hindu minority in Pakistan from 38 per cent to less than 1 per cent since 1947, or the killings on an industrial scale of Hindus in Bangladesh (not usually by Bengalis but by settlers from other parts who in the Bangladesh freedom struggle remained loyal to the Pakistan army that was killing the Bengali segment of the local population by then) since 1951. They were in full cry after the collapse of the Babri Masjid, despite the fact that not a single member of the minority community lost his or her life during that incident. Especially in the 1990s, both BBC and CNN competed with each other to label those as ‘freedom fighters’ who had just months ago committed genocide against the Pandit in Kashmir valley. What such media were championing was the freedom of extremist elements to kill innocent and peaceful people of another faith.
After the destruction of the so-called Babri Masjid, more than 160 temples in Kashmir were attacked, with several being destroyed or converted into sites, some of the uses to which they were put being best not to describe. Neither in India nor elsewhere, barring a handful of publications that were promptly labelled ‘communal’, was there mention of such a crime against secularism, a concept that implies equality of treatment and equal rights to every faith. To this day, the destruction of nearly 300 places of worship in Kashmir has gone not only unpunished but ignored by successive governments, with not a single individual even charge-sheeted for the offence. This is in contrast to the Babri Masjid trial, where some of the most powerful politicians in the country are facing prosecution for being present in 1992 when the structure disappeared in a cloud of dust.
Freedom is universal. Freedom is indivisible. Especially in an era when the Knowledge Industry needs to power the creation of a hundred and twenty million more jobs in India over the next five years, freedom of expression (FOE) is essential for economic and social development. While there are exceptions to this, such as expression designed to encourage specific perversions such as child pornography, or which explicitly call for the violent overthrow of the elected order, overall FOE needs to be accepted as part of life in a democracy. Indeed, the advance of technology will make the censorship of views even more problematic. Hence, the need for state authorities to focus only on the few necessary exceptions to the principle of free speech, rather than act in the spirit of Jawaharlal Nehru, who insisted that the first amendment to the Constitution of India should be that section limiting freedom of speech.
We must avoid the error of treating as separate entities those in sync with our views and those who hold contrary opinions. One country means equal rights and freedoms for all, including freedom of speech, whether it be in UP, Karnataka, Bengal or elsewhere. Those who ignore deeds of some while focussing on a few are doing a disservice to the ideals they themselves profess A contrast to the United States, the other very large democracy, where the First Amendment is explicitly designed to protect freedom of expression. Not just the central government but the courts need to protect such freedoms rather than allow busybodies (including those in authority) to subject those indulging in free expression to the rigours of the judicial and police process, for this is a conveyer belt that often drains an individual into a shadow of his or her former self. What is striking in India is that so many ‘champions of free speech’ suddenly become deaf, dumb and blind whenever the rights of those with whom they disagree personally and politically are sought to be restricted. There has been much criticism of the manner in which the UP police have dealt with media persons involved in disseminating online and on television the views of a lady about Chief Minister Adityanath. Shri Adityanath, I personally feel, needs to reflect on the experience of another Chief Minister, Narendra Modi in Gujarat, who for more than a decade was subjected to the most vicious of trolling, yet emerged stronger politically with every such abuse. The Gujarat government sought no legal action against the media persons and their platforms who were heaping insults on Modi on a regular basis, but simply ignored them. Interestingly, after the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, several of those who were fierce critics of Modi underwent a transformation and became his admirers. Just before the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, there was again a crescendo of verbal attacks directed at Prime Minister Modi. The election results showed that these actually created empathy rather than alienation towards India's first Prime Minister from both an economically as well as a socially weak section of society.
But what is strange (or perhaps not) is the silence of those condemning the action of the UP police against media persons on the ruthless, the relentless, manner in which the Bengal, Karnataka or Kerala police - to take a few examples - have used the colonial laws so carefully preserved by Nehru and his successors to send nearly two hundred media persons to jail. Publicly calling a Chief Minister in these and some other states anything other than a saintly genius has become an occupation filled with the hazard of serving a long time in prison.
Nehru’s (First) Amendment (and the sooner this gets repealed the better) has been used with alacrity in several states, and yet those claiming to champion freedom of expression ignore both this enactment as well as the manner in which those with whose political and policy views they agree are using this to try and suppress views contrary to their own. For such individuals, it would seem that freedom of speech is subject to the restriction that what is said must be such that they agree with. The rights of those with contrary views get ignored, the way the destruction of temples, Gurudwaras and lives in Pakistan or lives and temples in Kashmir or arrests of media persons in Bengal, Karnataka and Kerala have been. A genuine champion of freedom of expression will fight for the right even of those with whose opinions they are in complete disagreement with. India has suffered much from the 1947 Partition. We must avoid the error of treating as separate entities those in sync with our views and those who hold contrary opinions. One country means equal rights and freedoms for all, including freedom of speech, whether it be in UP, Karnataka, Bengal or elsewhere. Those who ignore deeds of some while focussing on a few are doing a disservice to the ideals they themselves profess.
(The writer is an academician and columnist)