Photo: AFP
Photo: AFP

Absolute freedom of speech

Conceding our freedoms to loud mobsmajoritarian or nottakes India further from the idea of the republic

Ever since Amartya Sen named his book on the nature of public discourse in India The Argumentative Indian, it has become axiomatic to refer to Indians in this manner. There is room for many views in the Indian mansion, and each can be expressed openly and without fear; such is the belief. If that were the limited meaning of the term, then the debate with which the Jaipur Literature Festival concluded on Monday was a resounding success. The audience on the front lawns of the Diggi Palace exceeded a few thousand, and raucous though the debate was, it ended peacefully and with good cheer. But the noise it generated—at times far louder than at many cricket stadiums during Test matches these days—showed what has become of India.

The motion being debated was whether freedom of speech should be absolute. Speaking for the motion were Kapil Mishra, a minister in the Delhi cabinet; Palanimuthu Sivakami, the Dalit novelist and politician from Tamil Nadu; Madhu Trehan, the pioneering journalist who runs the website Newslaundry; and myself. Speaking against the motion were the freshly-minted Padma Bhushan, actor Anupam Kher; former diplomat and Rajya Sabha MP Pavan Varma; and that debater for all seasons, Suhel Seth. We had one more panellist than our rivals; we said freedom of speech was absolute; and yet we lost when the audience was asked to raise hands and vote for the side that had won.

The debate’s outcome was preordained the moment it began. Both Kher and Mishra used the stage to turn the occasion into a political rally rather than a forum for debate. You could argue that Mishra did so in response to Kher, but once Kher came on stage and posed for the cameras, it was clear that the debate wouldn’t be of words, but of gestures. While Trehan bleeped parts of words or phrases she spoke to make the point that censors treat audiences as infants, Kher in fact upheld freedom of speech—he used a common misogynist abuse hurled routinely on Indian streets, but which some, like myself, avoid using in public or private. Kher’s point, however, was not to defend free speech, but to make the point that India is a free country, and you can say what you want. And yet, when Mishra and others from my side spoke, Kher raised both his hands as if he were a music conductor, and on cue, many in the vast audience began to shout repeatedly, “Modi, Modi." Kher smiled, looking satisfied.

We lost, and that’s fine. But it made me wonder about how deep a society’s commitment to free speech is. For those in the audience who shouted down speakers they didn’t like will themselves get shouted down when the tide turns. A society will not advance if it does not tolerate alternative views, and which wants one view to prevail—because the loud ones consider that view to be reasonable, because it accepts things as they are, because it reinforces existing social norms. It will remain mired where it is; it will believe the illusion that it has found the way, that it is the freest in the world.

All the laws that restrict freedom of expression in India—sections 153A, 295A and 66A (which may resurface one day—don’t trust any government to concede powers permanently to the courts or the people), as well as the reasonable restrictions to free speech under Article 19(2), (which Varma enumerated during the debate as if all those restrictions were somehow for our good), are there because politicians want them and many Indians are happy to live with such restrictions. Actually, the understanding many Indians have is slightly nuanced: they want full freedom of expression for themselves, but not for views they oppose. They are prompt in pointing out abusive speeches from others and return the favour louder, assuming that loudness makes up for content. That generates heat, not light.

To be sure, freedom of expression does not mean the other side has an obligation to listen. But it also does not mean that the other side can be shouted down. Indeed, someone will say something that you consider obscene, tasteless, offensive or insulting to something or someone you revere. But what you revere is strong enough not to get hurt, and what’s distasteful to you may be nourishment for others. This applies beyond speech—to what we eat, drink, think, who we wish to love, and how we wish to lead our lives.

The Indian mansion is meant to be large enough for all views, even those that some consider foolish. Shouting down other voices is cowardly. Conceding our freedoms to loud mobs—majoritarian or not—takes India further from the idea of the republic it celebrated on Tuesday. And further too from that heaven of freedom in which Rabindranath Tagore wanted India to awake.

Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London.

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