India is a democracy with the freedom of speech and expression being enshrined as a fundamental right of every citizen, in its Constitution. However, with every right comes a corresponding duty that makes it mandatory for every citizen to use its right responsibly, with a regard to other people’s sentiments. Many regulatory bodies like the Press Council of India and the Censor Board of Film Certification, have been set up with the mandate of overseeing the various kinds of messages emanating from its subjects.
Recently, many cases of censorship have come to the fore that raise many disturbing questions for all - the people from whom the messages are originating, the intended recipients, and the regulators.
111 people were booked for their Facebook posts against Rajya Sabha Deputy Chairman PJ Kurien in the Suryanelli gang-rape case; two Mumbai girls were arrested for expressing their displeasure on bandh called after Bal Thackeray’s death; Mamata Banerjee got a professor arrested for circulating a cartoon poking fun at her; a Bengali film critical of Mamata Banerjee was banned by the Censor Board; Kamal Hassan was forced to delete some scenes from his movie, Vishwaroopam, after days of negotiation and threats to his life; Salman Rushdie had to cancel his visit to the Jaipur Literary festival last year because of threats to his life; MF Hussain, one of the most celebrated artists of India, had to die outside his own country; and the list is long.
What do these recent events show? How do they reflect on us as a society? What does it talk about India that claims to be a successful democracy? How does the world view all these events? Surely, the answers to these questions can be anything, but positive. It just goes to show how narrow-minded we are as a society; how little tolerance do we have for views different from ours; how sectarian we are; and how closed our thinking is.
The French philosopher and writer, Voltaire had said aeons back, “I do not agree with a word that you say, but I will defend to death your right to say it.” If a person living in the eighteenth century could understand this, how come this insight escapes the people living in the twenty-first century – the so-called enlightened people?
It is fine to regulate the freedom of speech to ensure that it does not cause unrest in the society, but the people in and with power, seem to be misusing this right to fan their personal egos and agendas. One definition of the term, ‘freedom’ that is often ignored is that it is the right to tell people what they do not want to hear. And, this is where the root cause of all the problems lies. These days, there is a growing intolerance for views different from one’s own. There are hoards of people who would start protesting against a book, or a movie that they have never read or seen, just because it suits their political motivations. And, sadly, the government does nothing and becomes a mute spectator, much to the dismay of the innocent sufferers.
India is at a dangerous turn. The fringe elements seem to be calling the shots these days. If the government does not curb this growing menace, the day is not far when it will become a dictatorship-by-a-few in the name of democracy – a prospect more dangerous than the absence of democracy.
So, is there any solution to this now-growing problem? Yes, there is and strangely, as simple a solution as the problem is complex – let us agree to disagree! If not for the sake of the people one disagrees with, then at least for the sake of democracy that gives one the very rights that are being misused.
(Shobhika Puri is a freelance writer.)