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Dilemmas of Free Speech in India - Sneha Rath

Updated: Nov 24, 2021

I am a human being, born free to live in a society with dignity and respect. I am guaranteed, by the law of the land, to be protected against any breach of my fundamental rights- the rights which cannot be abridged by the State. I am guaranteed the right to elect authorities with the power vested in me by the supreme law of the land so that my rights are safeguarded. I am told that I am entitled to rights; rights that are inherent to my existence, and one such right is my freedom to speak and express my opinion. Why is my ‘freedom of speech and expression’, a fundamental right?

The right to Freedom of Speech is often referred to as a 'first generation right'- a right protecting individuals from the interference of the State. It is one of the most cherished constitutional rights, entrenched in both contemporary constitutions across nations as well as International Human Rights treaties. Various theories that evolved in the past have tried justifying the importance of free speech. The ‘Marketplace of ideas’’ theory suggests that speech is conducive in the long run to the discovery of truth; the ‘Autonomy’ based theory is bifurcated into two branches- the negative view covers a narrow aspect of protecting oneself from internal and external forces, while the positive view reflects on its broader interpretation of not just protection against any force, but active exercise of one’s deliberative powers; the 'Self-realization' theory focuses on the self-development of an individual by self-fulfillment of his needs; and, the 'Democratic defense' theory propels the idea of people's need to be informed about the system governing them, to be able to take decisions in a democracy.

Though all the aforementioned theories constitute some part of the ‘free speech’, however, they cannot exist independently. For instance, if you censor speech, then the chances of truth coming out would decrease drastically; only when people present dissenting opinions, would then the exposure to multiple dimensions of a viewpoint increase; this would enhance the chances of a person to discover his or her ability to rationally think; when a person can introspect and channelize his thoughts, he discovers his needs; and only when a person can think and visualize, can he demand to be provided with information that is critical in keeping the political debate alive in a democratic country. Although I do recognize that we have different forms of government across nations, yet owing to the scope of this write-up, I confine my thoughts to the democratic form of government in India.

Article 19 (1) (a) of the Constitution of India guarantees to all its citizens, Freedom of speech and expression. Although these rights are subject to reasonable restrictions of public order, morality, decency, the security of State, sovereignty and integrity of India, relations with the foreign States, contempt of court or defamation; but the scope of the right to freedom of speech is wider than commonly understood. Over the last few years, Courts have ransacked the ‘right to freedom of speech’ concept on various occasions, only to discover its importance as a democratic element. They have opined that freedom of speech and expression bears no geographical limitations; it lies in the base of all democratic institutions, without which no popular government can function, and whose absence would be a detriment to the education of people and political debate in a democratic institution.


How efficiently are the citizens of India exploiting their right to freedom of speech and expression? The nexus between ‘power’ and ‘ideologies’ seems to have corrupted the present system governing the people of India. It is seemingly interesting how we have allowed the power to become a blanket of fear that terrorizes us and we pull the same to secure ourselves. To understand why ‘free speech’ is in a dilemmatic situation, we need to overview the recent political developments in our country. Power is a two-fold feature- while its positive aspect provides a resting place between rashness and courage, its negative aspect strives for eliminating people who obstruct the authorities by legitimate questioning. The misuse of power can be witnessed in the operation of the IT cell of the government; the horror lies in its active propagation of manufactured facts among the people and creating a sense of guilt in them for questioning the nuances of those facts.

Another branch of horror, parallel to the IT cell, is the culture of mob lynching. Surprisingly, today, mobs are spread across all the states in India; even though their social structure varies, the one common link among all of them is the cloak of religious fervor. The nexus between mobs, the IT cell, and the ‘power’ has proven to be a deadly combination that has been actively involved in promoting communal hatred among the masses. For instance, if we consider the infamous Pehlu Khan’s case, a bunch of mobs gathered around his house to beat him up when news had reached them that he was involved in beef-eating. After the information proved to be false, and the mobs were released, one of them confessed in a sting operation by NDTV that he had purposely beat him. What does this imply to us? It is quite evident now that mob lynching is slowly becoming a norm; and the hatred for other religions or ideologies is so deep, that even a view of the Quran, or any other religious textbook or symbol, might instigate these mobs to kill a person from a different faith.

The IT cell and the mobs have been instrumental in peddling fake news among the masses. Their power can be seen in constructing unverified news and serving them to people. In a way, they're manufacturing worries at a national level, because nobody is questioning the nuances of these facts anymore. It is a sad state of affairs that most of the Indians do not dare to speak up and question the legitimacy of the communal values being spread by these so-called 'bhakts- ardent followers of an ideology’. What has followed is we can see the history getting recreated. Meaning to imply that most of these followers now consider that a lot of our ‘great men’ from history have not been discussed enough; hence, it is their responsibility to correct the wrongs by rewriting the facts.

Isn’t this a breach of our right to know the true events from our history? Sadly, it is not so for these mobs or the bhakts. Any act of legitimate questioning might turn one into a minority; one doesn’t need to belong to any religion for that anymore. Where do we seek help? The ones who are supposed to protect and encourage us to speak up, are the ones who seem to be faltering with their responsibilities. Reflecting at an instance from our Parliament, as highlighted by a renowned journalist, Ravish Kumar in one of his books, we discover that a former speaker had once asked him and other journalists to use beautiful language for our Prime Minister, and refrain from delivering unpleasant truths. What exactly is a beautiful language? And why should a journalist or anyone refrain from the unpleasant truth? The sad reality is that the institutions that were once created for our protection are corrupted, by the power we entrusted in our representatives; and, the same power is now being used to terrorize us and keep us away from exercising our fundamental right to question and criticize the very system created by us.


Well, we cannot blame solely the system governing us for the non-happening of the daily practice of legitimate questioning in our democracy, be it through the media or any other medium. Our societal values and beliefs also play a key role in the degeneration of democratic practices in our country. A fun fact- Indians have not been educated to negotiate with their history; the very reason why most of them believe what they are being told via television and the bhakts to be a ‘tradition’. The lack of practice of using rationality to question the nuances and authenticity in any information, or reasonability in any kind of activity has led our society to become collectively mad today; this is detrimental to the proper functioning of law and order in our society as well.

Being a part of society, we collectively share the responsibility for its development; and development will only happen when we grow, from all spheres. Civilization took place because human beings started recognising the need to organize things, and fulfill their requirements. This is how we established States and their organs. We value human rights because they're inalienable, and constitute a fundamental part of our existence. In conclusion, we need to create a space for ourselves, where we can exercise our right to speak up and demand information, to maintain transparency in the system governing us, without any threats of institutional violence.

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