Home/ Opinion / Columns/  The idea of ‘private spaces’ can get our free speech back

It is time to accept that Indians have lost their free speech, and may not regain the freedom for many decades. Today, a small group or even a person who is offended, or actually not really offended but wants to have fun, can go to court and call for the arrest of publishers, authors, journalists, producers, actors, just about anybody who has said anything outside their home. India is a paradise for the offended. As a result, publishers are forced to withdraw thousands of copies of books from bookstores. Filmmakers and executives of streaming platforms are self-censoring, fearing trouble. No one knows what they can say anymore. Works of entertainment art and intellectuality that enrich millions can be taken hostage by one person who claims to be offended. I have a solution to the problem.

There is a place where India gives us complete freedom to say what we want, and also be nude, and perform some types of sex if not all: home. We are largely free as long as we are not in public. What we need to do is extend the idea of private space beyond home. We have to persuade India to consider a book, a film, an auditorium, an online channel or a stage as a private space. In return, for practical reasons because India cannot be defeated, works that wish to qualify as private spaces will limit their audiences to a size that does not worry the state. I have a figure in mind, but before that I need to say why I feel free speech can be protected in India only by removing it as public material and deeming it private.

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Going to court is useless. Indian law has always respected a person’s right to be offended more than a person’s right to speech. Even Ambedkar and Gandhi, two luminaries of modern India, had stated that they did not consider freedom of expression absolute. Their influence is in our laws that govern this freedom.

Free speech is natural, but freedom of speech is a fabrication. This is not contradictory because liberty is not a feral freedom; it is merely a good idea. Everyone wants to speak their mind and create artistic expression, but why should powerful people or the offended allow it? The idea that the powerful would graciously permit free expression out of a sense of morality or modernity is not only naive, but also a misunderstanding of how the West won extraordinary freedoms of expression. Their origins lie in the attempts of nobles to control the monarchy through the ruse of equality, fairness and free speech; also in attempts, down the ages, of a society’s second rung to rein in an elite through the same techniques.

In India, in the foreseeable future, we are unlikely to see a leader whose priority is to liberate Indians from the tyranny of the thin-skinned. We need to begin a practical movement that does not demand absolute free speech, but asks for works that promise to stay niche and within the private domain.

Here is a rudimentary mechanism for ‘private spaces’. A work or object that wishes to be ‘private’ will first announce that it is so. It will not be given free and will undertake to reach only a small fraction of Indians. This number may vary depending on the work. For instance, a person who wishes his lecture to be considered private can say anything to a maximum of a thousand people. The speaker cannot be charged with hurting sentiments. There will be, of course, a declaration at the start of the speech that it is private and those who are vulnerable to offence must leave. If the speech is broadcast, or put online, it needs to adhere to restrictions for the visual medium that I will arrive at in a moment. A book that wishes to be considered a ‘private space’ will restrict its print-run to a quarter of a million. An average book is read by four people; so the expected exposure of such a book is roughly one million. Books that call themselves private spaces will not be available in libraries. Films that wish to be considered private will declare that they might be offensive and unsuitable for people who are likely to be offended by an orange or green swimsuit. Such films will not sell more than 10 million tickets. Streaming platforms, too, will place such restrictions. If the viewership of a ‘private space’ film crosses 2.5 million households, it will be withdrawn. Comedy shows, or speeches that are webcast or broadcast will also adhere to similar curbs.

I know this is clumsy, and even surrenders nominal free speech to the government, but I do not see any other way. Why, though, should politicians agree to make a legislative amendment to permit this?

I believe they can be persuaded. Private spaces are small, so unthreatening. There is a price that creators are willing to pay to claim their works are private—modest revenues instead of jail. Another motivation for politicians is that the suffocation of expression in India today is making it easy for revolutionary heroes to rise. When the bar is so low for what is bold, it becomes easy for fake journalism and other kinds of activism to shine. Activists thrive in entertainment and art only because everything they say seems brave. They will not be able to compete against middlebrow art that is set free. Private spaces can thus serve as pressure valves.

Let us not forget that already there is an example of a functional ‘private space’— books, where you can say things that you cannot in a film. The logic of the state is that books reach very few people, hence are not threatening even as they promote the myth of India as a free place. That is all the idea of a ‘private space’ is about—let a minority enjoy the riches of art without threatening the culture department of the state.

Manu Joseph is a journalist, novelist, and the creator of the Netflix series, ‘Decoupled’.

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Updated: 19 Dec 2022, 11:01 AM IST
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