By K Raveendran
The postulation about freedom of expression by the nineteenth century British politician, Charles Bradlaugh, is particularly relevant in the Indian context today when the Modi government is doing everything possible to deny such right to the citizens in the name of sedition. Bradlaugh’s relevance goes up further considering that he was the founder of the National Secular Society within some 15 years after his colleague George Holyoake coined the word ‘secularism’ for the first time. The Modi government has cooked up a deadly cocktail of sedition, secularism and freedom of expression, which makes a revisit to the British parliamentarians particularly rewarding.
The following is what Charles Bradlaugh said about freedom of expression. “Better a thousand fold abuse of free speech than denial of free speech. The abuse dies in a day but the denial slays the life of the people and entombs the hopes of the race.” Modelled on the famous dictum about guilt and innocence, Bradlaugh’s quotes sums up the dilemma faced by political thinkers and social scientists over the current happenings in India.
It was probably the same dilemma that prompted retired Supreme Court judge Rohinton Nariman last week to describe freedom of speech and expression enshrined in the Indian Constitution as the ‘single most important and cherished human right’. He regretted that those who criticise the government are unfortunately being booked under sedition laws and called for the repeal of such colonial laws which should have no place in the Indian constitution.
Justice Nariman was only echoing what the Supreme Court has been saying all through about people’s right to criticise the government. The court summarised the relationship between a democratic society and freedom of speech in the famous Harijai Singh case of 1997 thus: In a democratic set-up, there has to be an active and intelligent participation of the people in all spheres and affairs of their community as well as the State. It is their right to be kept informed about current political, social, economic and cultural life as well as the burning topics and important issues of the day in order to enable them to consider and form broad opinion about the same and the way in which they are being managed, tackled and administered by the Government and its functionaries. To achieve this objective the people need a clear and truthful account of events, so that they may form their own opinion and offer their own comments and viewpoints on such matters and issues and select their further course of action, the court said.
The British sedition law had its origin in the concept of the king having a divine right to rule. It was created to prevent speeches and expressions inimical to a ‘necessary respect’ of the government. But the realisation that such concepts do not confirm to a democratic system of government, the British themselves repealed the law as they found sedition and seditious and defamatory libel are arcane offences from a bygone era when freedom of expression wasn‘t seen as the right it is today. While repealing the offending law, the British parliament had also stressed that the existence of such obsolete offences in UK had been used by other countries as justification for the retention of similar laws which have been actively used to suppress political dissent and restrict press freedom.
It is not clear if the British parliamentarians had India in mind when they said so. But the unfortunate fact is that even after the colonialists found the law archaic, the colonies are still using it to suppress dissent and restrict freedom of press, a tendency that has acquired dangerous dimensions under the Modi government.
Even the National Law Commission had pointed out in a working paper on sedition and freedom of speech that it was time we changed the draconian law that has clearly outlived its utility. It stressed that democracy is not another name of majoritarianism, on the contrary it is a system to include every voice, where thought of every person is counted, irrespective of the number of the people backing that idea. In a democracy, it is natural that there will be different and conflicting interpretation of a given account of an event. Not only viewpoints which constitute the majority are to be considered, but at the same time, dissenting and critical opinions should also be acknowledged. Free speech is protected because it is necessary to achieve some greater, often ultimate, social good.
But the Modi government will have none of these as it uses sedition even on the most flimsy ground to deal with dissent left right and centre. (IPA Service)