Freedom of speech & its limits

Freedom of speech & its limits

Limits on the freedom of speech in democracies are often odious. At the best of times, those who are tasked with enforcing the limits turn into petty tyrants even if the leadership of the country is fair minded and liberal.

There is, however, a darker hue to such freedom. At times the line between what is merely provocative and what incites rebellion is blurred. It is often held, especially by law enforcement agencies, that if such incitement leads to a law and order problem, then curbing such speech is the only way out. There are, however, larger issues involved here. In any case, building a link between the two—incitement and rebellion —that stands judicial scrutiny, is likely to prove onerous for our policemen.

The issue has gained salience in recent days and weeks after the recent utterances of Maoist activists Arundhati Roy and Gautam Navlakha and the secessionist Kashmiri leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani. In comments made in Srinagar, Roy argued, in somewhat unfortunate language, that Kashmir should have the option of seceding from India. If news reports are to be believed, legal opinion has it that there is a clear case of sedition against Roy and Geelani.

This is a time-tested bait. Mahatma Gandhi used it against British colonial authorities in India. Every time the authorities of the Raj booked him, he rose higher in public esteem.

Roy is no Gandhi and India hardly an authoritarian and freedom-suppressing land. Where Gandhi’s cause was freedom for the Indian masses, Roy’s purposes are different. Booking her for sedition will only give her oxygen that such persons badly seek. Geelani, in any case, only repeated what he has been saying for the past many decades.

If anything, those who want to throw the book at Roy and Geelani should read Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman’s brilliant, if misguided, bookManufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass MediaThey argued that unimpeded freedom of the press, a derivative of the freedom of speech, only bolsters the legitimacy of governments in industrial democracies. India is no exception to this. Why should the government of India throw that away for the sake of a few maladjusted individuals. If anything, the government can proudly proclaim that even terrorist sympathizers have a voice in India.

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