The tirade of Tanmy Bhatt, of AIB fame, about the beloved public figures Sachin Tendulkar and Lata Mangeshkar has evoked some very strong reactions on twitter and in the upper echelons of the Government. Needless to say, this has brought to forefront the ever raging tempest, the Free Speech debate.
India has the longest constitution in the world and this is not without reason. A fairly young constitution, less than 70 years old, the Constitution has already seen 100 amendments made compared to just 27 made to the 228 year old Constitution of the United States of America. In an almost comical and ironic, but relevant comparison, the first amendment to the Indian Constitution put into place ‘reasonable restrictions’ on Freedom of Speech, while the first amendment of the US Constitution prohibited any sort of abridgement of free speech.
So what happened in the 1 year of Absolute Free Speech in India?
Earlier, in March 1950, in Delhi, the government’s attempts at pre-censoring the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s mouthpiece, the Organiser, had been over-ruled. The East Punjab Public Safety Act, 1949, under which the curbs were being applied, was held to be unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. In another case in May 1950, involving a left-leaning journal called Crossroads, published by Romesh Thapar from Mumbai, met with the same fate. At the time, Madras state had banned the Communist Party and, as part of that policy, prohibited the entry and circulation of Crossroads in the state. Thapar contested this ban legally and won, with the Supreme Court declaring the Madras Maintenance of Public Safety Act, 1949 unconstitutional.
Within a week of the decision, Home Minister Vallabhbhai Patel wrote to Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, complaining that this ruling weakened the power of the Center in regulation of Press and the Public. Patel feared not being empowered to gag a Leader who was campaigning to annul Bengal’s partition (at the time). Despite their dissensions on most matters, both Nehru and the Iron Man of India believed in a powerful centralised state and decided to put into place certain controls which they could use as a device to restrict free speech in specific places. It is believed that the Father of the Constitution, BR Ambedkar, did not agree with these views but was a minority. However, he still managed to place the caveat of ‘reasonable’ restrictions that would be decided by the Judiciary, opposed to the Patel camp which insisted on total restriction which was in power of the executive.
Ridiculous Reasonable Restrictions Restore Ringleader Rule
We’re today saddled with vaguely defined hate speech, sedition and blasphemy laws that are repeatedly used on a regular basis for political ends. When people found solace in the internet, the Government sought to control the same and passed the Information Technology Act, 2000 which even went so far as to penalise “offensive” electronic messages. While one might argue that curbs on free speech are required in a country as wide and culturally different as India is, one fails to appreciate the ground reality of the situation. As we have seen in Mumbai in 1993 or in Gujarat in 2002, the state does not really seek to clamp down on free speech for such altruistic purposes. Instead, free speech curbs are used for petty political ends, banning books, movies, paintings, college gatherings and even Facebook status updates.
Even the last bastion of happiness has not been left alone in India. Comedy has always been an art that is liberal-minded. Almost all comedians will fight against censorship and have a way of interspersing comedy with public messages on freedom which has for several decades been a medium to reflect the mood of the public to changing jurisprudence. Ofcourse, this is something which is pure evil and shouldn’t be allowed.
Hence, in India, we’ve seen crackdown on a comedy roast hosted by All India Bakchod which poked fun at actors, directors and producers with their consent. We’ve further seen crackdown on poetry or music which capture the mood of the nation or take jibes at the ruling party; and now we’re witnessing the ruthless onslaught of an entertainer who ridiculed, on a lighter note, two famous Indian people on his personal snapchat account. This has been blown out of proportion and now the incumbent government and many political parties are urging the police to arrest the comedian and put him behind bars.
I personally don’t find All India Bakchod or Tanmay Bhatt too funny. In fact, a lot of their humour borders on being obnoxious and heavy handed, however, this remains their fundamental right and their freedom of speech. Tanmay Bhatt has not incited violence, nor has he indulged in hate speech. Neither the roast, nor his snapchat tirade been an attack on the democracy or freedom of the people of India. It might have been idiotic, sure, but it’s definitely not a crime. If anything, instead of putting restrictions on freedom of speech, the government could make idiocy a crime. Then again, if that is done, most of our Parliament would be behind bars.
Freedom of speech needs to be appreciated and put on the pedestal it deserves. Even if absolute freedom is not given in India, the reasonable restriction should genuinely be reasonable and the archaic sedition and hate speech laws should be vanquished in place of genuine laws to protect the sovereignty and integrity of India.
‘The Framers of the Constitution knew that free speech is the friend of change and revolution. But they also knew that it is always the deadliest enemy of tyranny’ – Hugo Black