While India celebrates the 64th year of the implementation of its own constitution, the majority of the people listening to an eminent panel, discussing ‘Freedom of Speech and Expression’ in the Jaipur Literature Festival, voted that “there is no freedom of expression in India”.
The discussion, on third day, attended by around 5000 people (the organizers said) were asked about the freedom of expression in India. The other option “sufficient freedom of expression” too got some votes, but still lesser. It was the part of the ongoing five day festival- a carnival of literati in Jaipur. The panel had journalist-author Basharat Peer, Journalist Shoma Chaudhury, Professor Orlando Figes, John Kampfner- journalist and author, and author John Burnside.
The Constitution of India came into force on January 26, 1950 replacing the Governing Document of India Act 1935. The day is celebrated every year by India, the country which claims being the largest democracy of the world but despite that there are harsh laws and excessive restrictions on freedom of speech. In 2012, two young women were arrested for a Facebook comment that criticized the shutdown in Mumbai for the cremation of a political leader, Bal Thakeray.
As a society, Chaudhury said, we must assert the right to be able to hurt someone’s speech. “There is no exception of freedom of speech. We need to become a more liberal society and defend the liberty. The only narrow restriction we should have should be on incitement of violence and discrimination,” said Chaudhury.
Peer added that India still has colonial laws that have not been changed since the formation of constitution. “There is a need to look at other laws too like AFSPA, Official Secrets act and PSA. These are not laws of a civilized society,” said Peer, author of Curfewed Night, a memoir on Kashmir.
Peer also mentioned that it was under the Official Secrets act that a senior journalist, Iftikhar Gilani was arrested only because he had downloaded a publicly available Pakistani document on internet. Gilani was arrested on June 9, 2002 and later the government withdrew the case against him on January 13, 2003 and released.
The Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), that provides impunity to Indian forces, has lately faced extreme criticism for promoting human rights violations. Public Safety act (PSA) is called “a lawless law” by the Amnesty International but it is still in place in the disputed Jammu and Kashmir (under which a person can be arrested for maximum of one year and minimum six months without trail).
The discussion on the free speech in India made Figes to say that the authoritarian governments don’t like that. “There should be market of free ideas. We should talk out our different views. Before you have free speech you must give authority to people to have free thoughts. Free speech is centre of democracy. Authoritarian governments don’t like that,” said Figes, also professor of history at Birkbeck, University of London.