• Pranav Jha

To Say or Not to Say. That should be the Question.

‘I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,’ as it appears in ‘The Friends of Voltaire Hall wrote the phrase as an illustration of Voltaire’s ideas. Freedom of opinion is an age-old concept with different influential thinkers of varying times having articulated their understanding of the freedom of opinion. Ancient Greek society is considered to be one of the flag bearers of the freedom of expression. Closer to home, we have had council (sabhas) in ancient times which facilitated the process of consensus making. Article 19 of the Indian constitution grants Indian citizens the right to freedom of speech and expression. Our constitution has always been a source of guidance for our governments and citizens. Many consider freedom of expression to be sacrosanct- a criterion which is vital for the functioning of democracy. From time to time, we have witnessed incidents which attempt to restrict opinions in society.

Recently, there has been a huge hue and cry over the decision of a private publishing company to cancel the publication of a book. This step has been decried by a section of netizens for undermining the freedom of speech and expression. The pre-launch event was cancelled after questions were raised on the guestlist which had attracted the ire of activists. The buildup of pressure led to further, the cancellation of publication of the book itself. Though, it is debatable whether a private publisher deciding to cancel a publication is a violation of the freedom of speech and expression or not. It can be morally incorrect if it is a breach of any contract, but the private publisher has a full-fledged right to decide what goes on in its publications. On the face of it, it does not appear to be violating freedom of speech and expression. However, this issue has pointed towards the contentious issue of the concerns towards undermining freedom of speech and expression.

However, the authors of the book- “Delhi Riots the Untold Story” shifted to another private publisher to get their work published. Eventually, the other publisher agreed to get the book published. Here, it becomes clear that the decision of a private publisher to cancel the publication of a book does not amount to a violation of freedom of speech and expression. It would not be fair if we compare this event to another, suppose the banning of certain films by CBFC or banning of content by a state authority. An important fact that cannot go unnoticed in the scheme of events is that the book received ample publicity evident by the high and rising numbers of pre-launch orders. This means that book might do well in the market offsetting any economic costs (if any) caused by the cancellation of the publication. The pre-launch event had been arranged to garner publicity for the book. Though the content of the book was unknown, specific excerpts had emerged which came under heavy criticism for being full of unsubstantiated claims. Ideological divisions in the publishing industry caused by extensive polarisation have led to the identification of certain publishers as a part of the elitist, liberal, left-leaning mechanism which hardly brings the other side of opinion. Apart from the book coming under criticism for its unverified and unsubstantiated claims, invitations to a specific guest of honour did not go well with netizens. The publishing house will further be in trouble if they have breached the contract with the authors. But did the publishing house go ahead with the publication without proper verification and editing processes? There is a standard operating procedure for any book to go ahead through a proper scrutinisation. Sensational books in India have done profitable businesses, but they had to go under a rigorous scrutinisation process. Nevertheless, another publishing house signed the deal with the authors. It has to be seen whether the claims of this book to be unverified or accusations of hate-mongering stand true or not! Despite this, the publishing house seems to have cashed in an opportunity to gain fame and earn high revenues.

Anti-establishment books, movies, plays and other forms of expression have more than often gained attraction. Don’t we do things which we are considered forbidden or risky? This behaviour is purely normal according to psychological standards and known as reactance. The stories of resistance in Third World anti-democratic establishments would often find a place in the “democratic West” where they were celebrated. Some of the anti-establishment authors would often seek refugees in the Western states where they would highlight the plight and the injustices in their respective countries. These books did earn great revenues and substantial fame. Some of the authors who stood against the regimes immortalised their dissent in literature. It is hardly possible that society can be estranged from literature or vice-versa. If we look at examples in contemporary India, the likes of Padmaavat did well at the box office despite cases of reckless vandalism even before the movie was released and sustained attempts to tarnish the movie as historically incorrect. This reflected the maturity of the movie viewers who formulated their opinions after watching the entire movie. The producers had to succumb to specific demands of protestors who felt that the film was hurting their sentiments. This is what freedom of expression stands for, all of us are equally entitled to voice our opinions and society, and the individuals have to decide what they wish to take or what they wish to critique.

It is a matter of concern that our academic spaces, cultural spaces, research industry and film industry are falling prey to extensive polarisation wherein ideological bents often become a deciding factor in what goes on. We should be careful of these faultlines: these tendencies to leave out space for the free and fair expression of one’s ideas. We shouldn’t let the ideas get suppressed in the interest of a healthy democracy. Yet, these are the times when freedom of speech and expression is vigorously discussed and debated. Sometimes, the opinions of individual sections of society become highly demeaning to other sections of society. This has led to the building of pressures which ultimately restrict the flow of opinions.

Indian society has a long tradition of vigorous debates and discussion. The intellectually rich discourse in India is the result of its tradition of healthy discussions. Multiple mathematical, scientific, cultural and societal theories wouldn’t have developed had there been no discussion or iterations of previously formed theories. Intellectuals since centuries have critically analysed the work of their predecessors and then refined it further. From conversations at ‘nukkads’ to primetime shows on televisions, we as a society have often been expressive of our thoughts. So, are we losing this tradition somewhere? The freedom of expression is constitutionally entrenched, and there are constitutional remedies available in case of violation. This constitutional provision is an addition to our rich heritage of existing freedom of opinion in different ages and the tradition of holding elaborate deliberations to reach consensus.

What degree of freedom should be allowed in our speeches? Is there a limit to expression i.e. the harmony and sanity of the society is being hampered by it? Any attempts at curtailing our freedom of expression or blocking out some one’s opinions purely for the reason that we disagree with it will cause stagnation of ideas. Unjustified restrictions on freedom of speech will be detrimental to a society’s holistic growth. The phenomena of banning books, censoring movies and restricting content are neither a recent one nor is it endemic to the Indian society. There is an underlying notion related to these regulatory censorship attempts- to what extent an authority can decide what society wants to read, or watch or listen? Perhaps, we should try to question ourselves about this.

On the other hand, our democracy is far too healthy not to allow the ceaseless flow of ideas. So does abolition do more harm than good? Blocking out various forms of expression is an injustice to the talent in our society, and it will inhibit our sense of freedom. Through multiple incidents in the past few years, we have seen institutions trying to restrict critiquing opinions- this does not fall in line with our traditions. The maturity of democracy depends on its ability to absorb criticism and allow varying opinions to exist in the framework, simultaneously without hurting the sentiments of others.

All of this freedom comes with a certain responsibility to ensure our freedom of expression does not harm others. However, there seems to be no unanimity on the question of what qualifies as hate speech. Hate speech is often rooted in hatred and intolerance, which can be demeaning and divisive. Hate speeches stand no merit in qualifying under the freedom of expression as they are designed to create unrest in the society, discriminate people on the grounds of race, religion, sex and whatnot. Hate speeches cannot have a place in a reasoned and a sane society because it endangers the well-being of many. Incited hate can cost many lives, and one cannot even ignore this fact. Those who spew venom in society through hatred filled content and do so under the garb of freedom of expression create a mockery of that very freedom. The whole essence of freedom of speech and expression gets destroyed when hate speech wears the cloak freedom of speech and expression. We should be extra-cautious in ensuring such tendencies of hate speech don’t percolate down the system.

Thus, it becomes essential that society as a whole does not lose out on opinions that could prove to be crucial in the construction of healthy dialogues in our society. Our literature, movies, songs, plays and other forms of expression have been instrumental in shaping our national opinion, and often they have highlighted the presence of inadequacies in our society. It becomes essential that all of us ensure that we do not restrict the flow of ideas, critiques, varying opinions- our freedom has come after many years of the toil of our freedom fighters. We should work in the direction of making our society more free and fair- something our founding fathers and mothers had envisioned for us.

by Pranav Jha