Free speech and being a little pregnant

For far too long, bullies with the ability to raise mobs have influenced governments, and that has to stop
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First Published: Fri, Jan 25 2013. 03 14 PM IST
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
Updated: Fri, Jan 25 2013. 11 52 PM IST
I once used to work, several layers of management removed, for a man who liked to say “there’s no such thing as a little pregnant”.
The approach of Indian lawmakers, administrators, and, unfortunately, even a few members of the judiciary, which has otherwise been a fervent advocate of free speech, indicates a move towards a you-can-as-long-as-it-doesn’t-offend approach that will only end up curbing the freedom of expression.
There are enough laws to deal with individuals and entities who misuse the freedom of expression, and this writer will not waste space going over the details of these, although their application is subject to the same discretion the police display while dealing with other issues, and the long delays that are part of the Indian judicial system. Indeed, if anything, there are too many laws, including some downright retrograde ones such as Section 500 of the Indian Penal Code that provides the basis for charges of criminal defamation and which is used as an instrument of control and intimidation by some (full disclosure: I have two criminal defamation cases against me, filed by worthies upset by Mint’s coverage of their companies and their activities).
The Mint newsroom has always been for free markets and free people and, in the context of recent events, I believe we will have to be equally protective of free speech.
Survey the evidence at hand: In Tamil Nadu, the state government banned the movie Vishwaroopam, after Muslim fringe groups, including one allied with the party that rules the state, protested against the depiction of Muslims in it. A judge of the Madras high court decided to view the movie himself before ruling on the ban—an approach that Solomon would have been proud of, but which ignores the precedence of a ruling by the Supreme Court on Uttar Pradesh’s ban of Prakash Jha’s Aarakshan that said a state had no business banning a film duly cleared by the Central Board of Film Certification (as indeed Vishwaroopam was). The Indian Express reported the Madras high court judge as having said that he would watch the movie along with leaders of the Muslim groups on Saturday and rule on the ban on Monday. This writer can understand why the judge wants to watch the movie, but why would he want to do so along with people who have asked for its ban? I am hoping the report was wrong.
The same day the Madras high court was hearing that case, the Supreme Court dismissed a petition by Sohan Roy, the man behind Dam 999. Roy questioned the extension of a ban on his movie by the Tamil Nadu government. According to a report in The Hindu, a bench of the Supreme Court refused to interfere with one of the judges saying: “Legally you may be right. We are not underestimating your right… The ban is only for three months. One month is over. If there is a law and order problem, what will happen… The court cannot ignore the apprehensions expressed by the state and consider only individual rights.” The government of Tamil Nadu claims the movie is about the contentious Mullaperiyar dam that sparked off a dispute between it and Kerala and resulted in anti-Malayali protests and violence in several parts of the state.
I see both these issues—and most such, in fact—as law and order problems and governments and courts would do well to focus on that aspect rather than turning everything into a debate on free speech.
For far too long, bullies with the ability to raise mobs have influenced governments, and that has to stop.
In both cases, the governments and the courts were being pragmatic, but the protection of free speech requires a puristic adherence and interpretation of the law. Wisdom is pragmatic; law is puristic. There is no such thing as being a little pregnant.
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First Published: Fri, Jan 25 2013. 03 14 PM IST
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