Freedom of Expression is in the news these days. Not just in the news, but also in social chatter. Young followers of this chatter may begin to wonder if in India there is Freedom of Expression at all. Of course, there is. Article 19 of the constitution provides for it clearly. Well, almost. Article 19 of the constitution says “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression, this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” This is very clear. The devil as they say is in the details. Here it is in Clause (2) of the same article. Clause (2) of Article 19 of the Indian constitution enables the legislature to impose certain restrictions on free speech under following heads:
- security of the State,
- friendly relations with foreign States,
- public order,
- decency and morality,
- contempt of court,
- incitement to an offence, and
- sovereignty and integrity of India.
Therefore, I really wonder where is the confusion. The law and its provisos are very clear. Freedom of Expression does exist. But comes with its own riders. Why is it so difficult to understand this even for the liberal intelligentsia?
What is missed out in the above which is what is the grey area in the whole thing is the Right to offend in the garb of Freedom of Expression. Does Freedom of Expression come with the Right to Offend? Certainly not.
Let us look at the most recent case in India involving this Freedom of Expression which was the release of a poster for a documentary film that depicted a smoking Kali, a goddess revered by the Hindus in India. As a film maker, Leena Manimekalai has the freedom to say what she wants in her films. As some people now try to say – the poster very well could be depicting a character in the film playing the Kali role in a play and smoking during breaks. Many of us have seen actors in their make ups smoking at the back stage. Now the question is, what is the need to put up this one scene in the marketing collaterals for the film?
As we have seen the director’s further reactions to the uproar, it is obvious that the choice of the poster was not by chance. It was by intent. An intent to exercise her Right to offend – in this case, a section of the Hindu faith. Therefore, no one should complain if there is an uproar and start questioning the existence of Freedom of Expression in India.
At the same time, is there a need to arrest her and put her in the jail for this? I don’t think so. Right to outrage cannot be a response to Right to offend. By calling for her arrest, one is falling into the trap of fuelling the promotion of the film.
This was followed by TMC MP Mahua Moitra’s comment which again sparked condemnation and call for her arrest. This is stretching it too far. While condemnation is also exercising the Freedom of Expression, calling for her arrest is not. Her comment certainly does not fall under any of the reasons mentioned in Clause (2) of Section 19 that warrants a legal action.
One can see the pattern. Before the Kali poster controversy, it all started with the comment made by BJP’s Nupur Sharma on TV on the Prophet. As a spokesperson of the ruling party, she did cross the line by dragging the Prophet in the TV discussion. Not surprising that it invited condemnation from the Muslim countries and India had to handle the diplomatic fallout. Again, the call for her arrest and killing is totally not acceptable and condemnable. In the same lines, the daylight killing of Kanhaiya Lal in Udaipur for a Facebook post in Udaipur is deplorable. This Action – Reaction cycle is going to be endless.
In all this, it is clear that one can exercise his or her Freedom of Expression openly while in private or in the known circle. But when you are in the public space, there is a need to exercise restraint and control. Because as some wise counsel said, “Your right to swing your arms ends just where the other man’s nose begins”. This can be stretched quite well to the issue of Freedom of Expression as well. While expressing in public, one should clearly be aware as to where the other man’s sensibilities lie.
Therefore, there is a need for drawing one’s own LOC (Line of Control) on FOE (Freedom Of Expression) while in public domain. In my opinion, one knows very well, when the Line of Control is being crossed. So, it is not that difficult to exercise control along the LOC. This is not just applicable to individuals but to politicians and creative people as well.
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