In Retrospect

Freedom of Speech:A veritable discourse or an idle metaphor?

Utsav Basu explains why right to speak now has a new connotation, torn between political overtures & the concept in general

If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear — George Orwell. If poverty and joblessness were not enough, then India, in the last few years has a new topic to ponder upon — Freedom of Speech and Expression. Article 19 1 (a) of the Constitution of India promises every citizen of the country the Right to Freedom of Speech and Expression, however, with a few limitations. And in India, this clause has been used and exploited as a political tool. While some uphold their right to speak, others challenge it as an infringement upon the sovereignty and solidarity of the country. But the question is who decides what is right or wrong? Do we battle it out in the courts in a constitutional manner or enlighten ourselves from the fiery speeches of the political gurus? Or simply, fight it out like our arboreal ancestors with sticks and bricks in hand?

The last option is quite in fashion these days. Be it a fight over the 2016's controversial Afzal Guru event in JNU or the recent Ramjas violence that led to a bitter political fight, every student wing has been giving a new dimension to the phrase — Freedom of Speech and Expression.

While knowledgeable, well-read intellectuals of the country would fight over the jargons of the right conferred upon every citizen and reach to almost inconclusive inferences, a common man thinks otherwise. He is content with the idea that the State allows him to say what he wants, express what he feels, albeit with a few restrictions. The problem of the country these days seems to be the flooding of information through unverified sources, thus leading to utter confusion.

The Ramjas clash had yet again opened a window of opportunity for Indians to wreck their brains to take a stand and decide upon the limitations of 'freedom' as a whole. But like every other problem in the country, this too took a political turn. From where should the line be drawn between freedom and insensitivity, the focus shifted to what is nationalism with students' unions taking out either the Azaadi march or the Tiranga march. However, one might contest it by saying that the Constitution of India grants every citizen the right to hold a gathering peacefully without the presence of arms. But if every important debate is taken to the streets, the importance of dialogue is diluted while the issues remain unaddressed.

Just as a quick recap, the recent controversy over the Ramjas violence broke out when Umar Khalid, a member of Bhagat Singh Ambedkar Students' Organisation (BASO) was invited to the college to speak on the rights of Adivasis and the ABVP protested against it. However, the reason cited by the ABVP seems to be a bit absurd. They say Khalid was stopped from speaking because he is an anti-national who spread hate for the country in the Afzal Guru event in JNU last year. But hang on, isn't that still in the courts and on the supreme upholder of law to decide, or simply sub-judice?

When the idea of nationalism and freedom of speech and expression became a bit too jarring, Millennium Post contacted Umar Khalid who said: "Freedom of speech is a fight against power. A person in power thinks he has the right to throttle any voice of dissent and this is a fight against such fascist ideologies."

"If a person is not allowed to speak out his mind, how should democracy function in this country? I went to speak on the issue of rights of the Adivasis and even if I have not been allowed to speak, I still stand by what I feel and I will continue my fight for the Adivasi rights," said Khalid adding: "Differing opinions is the spirit of a country and every person should have a right to differ."

A member of AISA, Utkarsh, explains the idea a bit more. He says: "Freedom of Speech should be absolute. I do not believe a person should be stopped from speaking. If I do not like what someone is saying, I should hold a debate with him and not take to fascism and start thrusting upon my ideologies on that person."

Utkarsh was present in the recent protests that were held in the backdrop of the Ramjas row. He says he has been brutalised at least four times in a week yet he is "open for dialogues".

Speaking on where the line should be drawn between freedom and insensitivity, Khalid said: "There shouldn't be any line. The only thing to be kept in mind is that through freedom of speech, hatred should not be spread." Qualifying himself, Khalid adds: "I'm not a nationalist. I'm a patriot."

A poised Utkarsh too echoes the same feeling and says: "Lines are drawn between countries. People should be able to speak out their minds until they are spreading hatred. What ABVP is trying to do is a totalitarian attitude."

Delving into the importance of freedom of speech and expression, keeping in mind the present scenario, one's focus is automatically shifted towards the idea of nationalism. While Oxford dictionary defines it as a "patriotic feeling, principles, or efforts", Merriam takes it a bit further and explains it as the "loyalty and devotion to a nation; especially: A sense of national consciousness, exalting one nation above all others and placing primary emphasis on promotion of its culture and interests as opposed to those of other nations or supranational group." However, in the past few years, India seems to have an altogether different definition of nationalism and surprisingly, anything that does not fall in the same line of thoughts is tagged as anti-national.

If freedom of speech is an absolute right of a citizen, any voice of dissent should not be deemed anti-national. The very spirit of democracy is the right to question and differ but the same should not be gagged with charges of sedition thus tagging the ideologies of dissent as deshdroh (treason).

If nationalism only means standing up for the national anthem and saluting the Tricolour or gagging any voice raised against the establishment, the very concept of democracy is tarnished with such superficial ideas about it. The idea of nationalism, as framed by our freedom fighters, was way beyond what is expected these days. It was less of a political idea and more of romanticism. One might choose to serve the poor or treat the ill or simply plant a tree and show his love for the country and save time from indulging in the much-expected, thrust upon, newly-formed prerequisites of being nationalistic.

So what is nationalism according to the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP)? "Whatever is defined in the Constitution of India about nationalism is what we believe in," said Saket Bahuguna, the national media convenor of the ABVP. However, on asking if the idea about what is guaranteed by the Constitution of India sacrosanct, then why was Umar Khalid stopped from speaking about the rights of Adivasis, Bahuguna gave a rather vague answer by saying:

"Khalid spreads anti-national messages through all his speeches. He did it in the Afzal Guru event as well."

When Bahuguna was confronted with the fact that the allegations against Khalid are still sub-judice in the court, he said: "Someday you might say allegations against Hafiz Saeed are also sub-judice."

However, Bahuguna was also quick enough to clarify that their concept of nationalism is their own and that they do not believe in forcing it down someone's throat. "We believe in chanting Bharat Mata ki jai but at the same time, we will not force others to do the same as well. It is okay if they do not wish to say so but we have a problem when people raise slogans like Kashmir wants freedom." He also said that they are always open to debates and discussions and that any sort of violence is condemned. "We have a problem with people who want to divide our country into pieces and Khalid is an upholder of the idea and thus, the ABVP will always protest against him and his like," concluded Bahuguna. A much broader perspective was drawn by Utkarsh who linked nationalism to unity. "Anything that binds the country into one is nationalism according to me," said Utkarsh.

But in a country like India, which is home to around 130 crore people, it is utopian to expect that every single person will adhere to the same ideologies. "We cannot expect everybody to wear the same clothes, talk on the same lines and believe in the same ideologies. Dissent should be welcomed as that is the true spirit of democracy," said Khalid on being asked about his ideas of nationalism.

Meanwhile, amid the mudslinging students' politics of DU, recently, even Jamia Millia Islamia University entangled in a bit of controversy when it allegedly dropped the name of Shazia Ilmi from the list of speakers on the issue of Triple Talaq. Ilmi alleged that she was first invited to speak on the issue and later, the organisers pleaded with her and removed her name saying, that the V-C was mounting pressure upon them to stop Ilmi from speaking as she belongs to the Bharatiya Janata Party. The university, on the other hand, denied having done so and said that the seminar was not conducted by them and they had no role to play in it. The RSS took it a bit too far and tagged the university a refuge for anti-nationals.

The entire debate over freedom of speech and expression and nationalism and their criticisms and counter-criticisms also brings us to a very important point — Tolerance. Indians need to be more tolerant and patient in such sensitive issues and not indulge in political fights over issues that affect the common man. Rather a platform to debate the ideologies should be made and students' politics in India has to play a more pro-active role in ensuring the same. If a mere suspicion leads to such political drama, then the problems of the country would always remain far from being addressed.
Next Story
Share it