The weakening of Freedom of Speech

I haven’t directly addressed the issue of the arrest of five activists or, ‘Urban Naxals’ as the right-wing in India likes to call them, simply because it requires meticulous examination of the record of the evidence that is yet to be presented in Court. An exercise that is best left to the parties involved.
Yet, I don’t view the arrest as a positive advancement, simply because it appears to be a fallacious exaggeration of the activities the five people are involved in. If the activities are indeed fallacious, even in one’s own opinion, then it makes for all the more reason to protest it. Otherwise, what would be left of the fundamental right to speech and freedom (freedom is the key point and a separate right here), more so, who would be left to protect it when one allows it to be trampled upon in the manner it happened with the arrests.  However, this article is rather an attempt to analyze why such fundamental rights are so weak in India even after seven decades of independence. It also seeks to find out who is at fault for allowing the government to tread upon fundamental rights with impunity. My attempt will be to address these issues in a broad manner and would only briefly refer to the factoids.

Therefore, the first question that needs to be answered in this exercise is who is essentially tasked with the protection of these rights?  It is certainly not the government against which the rights have been granted. It is the Courts by default, but by design, it can only protect these rights in a limited manner due to the overburdening of pending cases. This only leaves civil society to be the first-responders in cases of excesses against these rights. Except for the brief interlude during the Jayaprakash Narain days, where the bulk of opposition against the government came from the cadres of the right-wing, the civil society in India and even around the world, has been close to the left ideology. It has been treated as the liberal intelligentsia that maintains the balance and connection with the government, a kind of pressure group, articulate in its orientation, manifesting itself through NGOs, media reporting, mobilization in Universities and Colleges, representation in government bodies, etc. It is a great responsibility, handed over partially because of its influential capacity and partly acquired because of its accumulated monopoly in the above-mentioned institutions.

So the question needs to be asked is, has the civil society discharged its burden of upholding rights these rights? The answer is, it has, but more as an interest group rather than as a pressure group. In other words, they have treated individual rights as rights for Individuals, approaching the excesses on fundamental rights in a surgical manner. Thus, there was never a strong push for securing a general right for everybody but isolated attempts at securing these rights for selected individuals. This problem came to the surface in an evidently during the Salman Rushdie affair. One of the first few persons to call for a ban on the book was none other than the Liberal author Khushwant Singh.  The book was yet to be banned in other Islamic nations, but we took the lead without a murmur. There were hardly any voices for opposing the ban against the book. The few voices which indeed opposed such a ban came from the right-wing intellectuals such as Sita Ram Goel. Even as recently as in 2015, when Shireen Dalvi of Avadhnama reproduced the images from Charlie Hebdo magazine and was being threatened with her life, there was hardly anyone to take up her cause.

So, why this compromise did happen? There are multiple reasons for it. The most evident of which is an arrangement of quid pro quo with the government. The liberal intelligentsia supported an economy that gave the monopoly to the government and in turn, the government used that monopoly to ensure lucrative rewards for the sycophants of the regime. The parties that they shared or developed ideological affiliations with, ruled with their approval and ran institutions at their directions.  The civil society, in turn, had to be bound by the party’s political vote banks and had to make sure that the fears, doubts, anxieties and suspicions remain perpetuated for the political power of the party to survive. This restricted their ability to voice for the rights of the people that cannot be seen as their ideological peers.

If one goes through the history of suppressive legislation and the debates surrounding them, especially through Granville Austin’s magnum opus ‘Working a Democratic Constitution’, he/she will find Jana Sangh and Swatantra Party as the primary parties opposing such legislation with minimum lip service from the Communist Parties. This was all the more evident from the Indira Gandhi Era when the communist parties left the mantle almost entirely to the right wing. Indira’s Congress found common cause with their economic thinking and in turn handed them Education Institutions to justify its questionable rewards. It was, therefore, the case that Communist Party of India was one of the few parties that supported emergency while most of Jana Sangh’s leadership, as well as that of Vidyarthi Parishad, was languishing in jails.

This is despite the fact that most of the initial amendments to the constitutions affecting the Freedom of speech came due to the activities of the communists. They were treated to be a threat to the territorial integrity of India by the Nehru government, especially after China war in which a section of the Communist Party supported the Chinese aggression. Yet, the primary opposition to these laws never came from the quarters of the Communist/Congress party. To summarize, the laws that were brought to suppress the subversive activities in India, were by and large opposed by sections that were not treated or seen to be generally in favour of opposing these legislations, and the parties which were decked up to be the primary opponents of subversive legislations were never taking the lead in their role.

Thus, we had a situation where the civil society, which remains as a powerful force, had a history of selective approach to the fundamental rights. We had a government that always felt too threatened from any kind of declaration that goes against the interest of the state and a plethora of communities that were discontented with the government. This discontent could not be addressed due to our economic policies, which in turn were again being reinforced by the same civil society. In such circumstances, our government approached with any adversarial mobilisation with the might of law and the power of the state.

These arrests, even if you treat them as fascist, statist aggression or, a part of undeclared emergency by the BJP government. It is not their germane but a continuity of action of how the government has treated and reacted to such incidents.  An environment brought about by the laxity of the civil society, the immediate acquiescence to adverse action by the government and the lack of means for an average individual to seek redressal. In this context, there is hardly an element of surprise, shock and I venture to say even sympathy. We have been trained to self-censor or pre-censor ourselves, anybody who engages otherwise, is taken to be a fool, perhaps a brave one, but a fool nonetheless. The arrests might be right or wrong, justified or unjust, suppressive or preventive, but are not unusual. It has been the reaction of the state is consistent. In these confines, from the perspective of the state, they treat the civil society as the purveyor of those fears, doubts, anxieties, and suspicions which they initially thought were beneficial for their vote bank. The Congress government thought it was held ransom to it during the Lokpal agitation where it arrested people left-right and center. It too saw the uptick in the Naxal movement as the extension of such activists and indeed arrested them with equal vigor. As for the arrests, civil society will eventually manage to get them out because it treats them to be one of their own. But I would not be as sure if I were to venture to write a book like Ram Swarup did, which remains banned and the criminal proceedings against him took 10 years to be quashed.

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons – Censorship of Lenin’s speech Photograph

Anuj Aggarwal

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