Who Really Cares For Free Speech?

I get Kapil Sibal.

I really do.

When he says that he is not against political dissent per se but merely acting, in the benefit of the nation, to wipe out online speech that promotes communal disharmony and religious unrest, I totally understand where he is coming from.

I know that Google says that of the 358 requests to remove content, 255 dealt with the criticism of the government.

But where Google and perhaps many of the wise commentators are missing the bus is that the government (which in Mr. Sibal’s mind and I guess ours too is the Congress party) is actually a religion. It is built on the dogma that some people with a certain juxtaposition of letters in their last name are divinely ordained to rule.  It has its pantheon of above-laws-meant-for-mortals Gods whose achievements, while being sung about in hymns, are almost never perceived in the real world and who need to be continuously propitiated with sacrifice and utter “respect my authority” reverence. Once we accept this basic premise, what Mr. Sibal says makes perfect sense, that being that his religious sentiments and those of the believers of his religion (or more precisely, those who subscribe to his “community standards”) are being hurt by the not-so-complimentary depictions of their idols that have flooded the interweb.

Which is why they have to be removed, sometimes even before they have seen the light of the day since Gods are sent into wrath not just by impure actions by also by impure intentions.

Those trying to find an inconsistency between what he is claiming to do (remove comunal hate speech) and what he is doing (censoring political criticism) need to lay off.

Mr. Sibal, after all, is a fine lawyer. He knows what he is doing. If not from a technological perspective (since most of us know the semantic pre-screening he is asking for is technically infeasible) but definitely from the legal one.

Because in India, our rights to free speech are curtailed by what the Constitution calls “reasonable restrictions” on its practice. These include restrictions on speech that is defamatory in nature, or against decency and morality, or that which compromises friendly relations with foreign states or the sovereignty and integrity of India. Section 295-A of the Indian Penal Code severely restricts any speech that could be construed to outrage religious beliefs. In this paragraph, two phrases should have come out and struck you like Pawarian slaps—-“against decency and morality” and “outrage religious beliefs”. Virtually anything and everything that vexes the authorities can be put into these two baskets—a non-flattering photoshop of a prominent political figure may definitely be claimed to be against decency or as an attack on figures held in Godly reverence.

But wait, wait. What’s wrong in these legal restrictions? What if people get offended by expressions of dissent or sarcasm or opposition and do something naughty? Like if I draw an offensive cartoon and some people get so angry that they catch hold of some other man on the street, put a tyre around him and set him on fire. Does the government not have a responsibility to pre-empt that violence?


The problem of course here is the basic assumption that adults can use a “He made me do it” argument to justify illegal acts. The girl showed cleavage and so I mauled her. His book offended me and so I trashed all stores selling it. The Devil spoke in my head and so I slaughtered the family in sleep.

In a mature democracy one would hope that people realize that 1) criminal acts are criminal acts and should be punished as such and that speech or artistic expressions should not be used as justifications for such acts,  2) criminals will do whatever they have done and can always find a rationale later on. Unless speech is that which concerns the operational plans for a criminal activity (e.g. planning a terrorist attack on the Net) or that which is plainly libelous (making a serious specific accusation against someone without evidence) it is not the expression that need to be the object of a severe yank, but those that supposedly are goaded to act unlawfully on its basis that need to be yanked up by their necks.

Something, (actually Google’s “255 number”) tells me that what has got Mr. Sibal’s blood pressure all high is none of the above.

Again the important thing here is not the famous lawyer, who to be honest, is one of the better politicians we have in this country. (Yes I know that’s not saying much).

What’s worthy of attention thing is the law that gives principals like Mr. Sibal the power to impose the insecurities of a privileged few on the nation.

Why does a law, so weak in protecting dissent, exist so many years after independence?

Here is where things get uncomfortable.

That is because we love what Sibal is doing. Yes. You heard me right.

Growing up in a culture where respect is everything, we want everyone to kneel down their heads. To our Gods.

The only thing we disagree, as a country on, is who our Gods are.

So those who are blowing salivary froth over the digital air-waves at Sibal’s attempts to stifle anti-Gandhi family vitriol, will be equally rabid, but on the opposite side, if the needle-head of irreverence are turned towards Modi-“ji”,  Baba Ramdev or The Fast Gandhi-ian Who Loves Administering Lashings With Belts .

Those who say that Arundhati Roy should be legally prosecuted are as passionate in respecting Swamy’s right to say what he feels.

Genteel liberals who cry scented tears on the removal of books from syllabi  have no compunction in ganging up to stifle the voice of someone who does not share their “Free Kashmir” political philosophy. And even those who claim to see “both sides” suddenly discover the joys of censorship when it comes to sex or violence in movies because “Hey my son’s morals need to be protected” and it is somehow the government’s duty to do so.

One may argue that this is basic human nature—we think that everyone is obliged to share our view of good and bad and if they don’t, a dry rag need be stuffed down their mouths. At the very least, if they dissent they should do it in ways we deem acceptable.

Which is why a mature democracy needs strong laws, like the US First Amendment, that covers not just the content but also the context in which speech is being made (which is why comic expressions are given an enormous leeway), so that the decision whether speech is licit or not is left, to the least amount possible, to human agency and to slippery subjective slopes like “hurtful to religious sentiment” and “immoral”.

And nothing expresses this better than the court ruling given in “Hustler vs Falwell” (link) which, I believe, explains perfectly why First Amendment-like laws are imperative in a democracy.

“At the heart of the First Amendment is the recognition of the fundamental importance of the free flow of ideas and opinions on matters of public interest and concern. The freedom to speak one’s mind is not only an aspect of individual liberty – and thus a good unto itself – but also is essential to the common quest for truth and the vitality of society as a whole. We have therefore been particularly vigilant to ensure that individual expressions of ideas remain free from governmentally imposed sanctions.” The First Amendment envisions that the sort of robust political debate that takes place in a democracy will occasionally yield speech critical of public figures who are “intimately involved in the resolution of important public questions or, by reason of their fame, shape events in areas of concern to society at large”.

But we will not have such strong laws.

Because no one in politics, from the white caps to the saffron gowns to the red bandannas to the green scarves, want it.

And to be honest, deep down inside, neither do we.

[PS: A sincere word of thanks to all those who inquired about my health. I had an emergency appendicitis operation earlier in the week. I am feeling better now.]


42 thoughts on “Who Really Cares For Free Speech?

  1. didn’t wanna put in the 1st comment without reading the article, but cudn’t resist the urge…

  2. But where Google and perhaps many
    idols that have flooded the interweb.


    Also – really depressed over learning that the vague wordings of section 295A exists as a dangerous malleable tool.

  3. The belief that the “masses” don’t know what is good for them and hence require some High and Mighty to do their thinking for them leads directly from the caste system. It is a tragedy that even with increasing levels of education the mind set of the caste system – which basically says some are better then others- has not been eradicated.

    This same can be seen in the Lokpal bill – where some representatives of “civil society” will decide on behalf of others. Is not that the function of the courts? Why cannnot each of us decide for ourselves what is good or bad?

    Thanks GB for this post – however it is not fair to point the light on the congress (though they deserve it most) but all sections of politics and indeed society. The communists used to be paranoid about anything written about their friends in Russia! And of course – BJP’s thin skin when dealing with “our culture” and how easy it is apparently to desecrate it is legend!

  4. Pritam,

    If you read again what I have written, that is my point. I have not just shined the light on the Congress. My thesis is that everyone, across the political spectrum, want this state of affairs. It’s just that the Congress is in power now.

  5. And Sibal Ji is most concerned about “the individuals posting inflammatory material online (who) are overseas, out of the reach of our laws.” 😐

  6. I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.

    I don’t have hopes of seeing this attitude in my lifetime. Maybe a hundred years from now. If human beings still exist that is.

  7. Nicely put Arnab. We Indians have a long way to go before truly supporting free speech. The ‘reasonable restriction’ clause cannot be blamed on the politicians alone (who are easiest punching bags). I have personally met people who believe that a ‘reasonable restriction’ must be adopted by speaker/artist/writer.

  8. This is true. It’s surprising how many well-intentioned and relatively liberal people subscribe to the notion that free speech should not offend. What is the point of having free speech if you’re only limited to saying things that no one can take offense to?

  9. the problem with most free speech advocates in India is their asymmetric world view when it comes to offending religious sentiment.

    The classic case was the MF hussein paintings versus Danish cartoons controversy in India a couple of years back. Arun shourie summed it up perfectly – ” I am for Hussein, not for his champions” and further went on to say “Finally, a forecast : the more the secularists insist on double-standards, the more Islamic will the Hindus become.”

    “acceptable” free speech is too subjective to be objectively implemented, its time our political class accepts that the time for absolute free speech has come and here to stay ..

  10. This completely true. The “he/she made me do it” mentality is what protects rioters from being arrested while holding the supposed “inciter” liable at the same time!

    As if adults are like children or insane people whose bodies are suddenly taken over and possessed. For that matter, no one even visits a web page or URL accidentally! If a person goes to a website by their own free will, don’t they have the responsibility to accept whatever there is or simply reject it and boycott that site?

    These “offences against morality” etc are just excuses to control people.

  11. A lot is made of so-called free speech and freedom of expression and all that jazz. This is espcially fashionable for our generation to espouse, as it somehow justifies our liberal urban english-educated ethos. However, unfortunately, every right must be accompanied by a corresponding duty, and however much we can shout, there has to be a controlling authority- in this case the state, for anything else will boil down to sheer anarchy- even if it is in the virtual world! Many of the comments on our popular social networking sites are hate comments against other castes and religions, seriously, are we so daft to think that these comments cant cause damage? I am a religious person (and 30 years old at that), and I respect other religions as well, but if someone comments unfavorably against my religion, Ill take offense to that. If that means I am backward and anti-liberal, so be it! Not sure there are too many countries (developed ones included) in this world that would take favorably to adverse comments on them on the net, so I don’t see any reason why our government too should! And just to clear the air, I am not defending the government here, only its stance!

  12. GB, I agree. “Free Speech” isn’t speech du jour. It cuts both ways. I remember some years back ACLU actually upheld KKK’s right to a peaceful rally. You can’t have a la carte “Freedom of Speech”. It’s all or nothing.

  13. The only thing we disagree, as a country on, is who are our Gods are. are twice?

  14. Sayan
    You have the right to feel offended. But that’s about it. government doesn’t have to give you tissues every time you cry about something posted on the net.

  15. And yeah, last week I got offended by something by a graffiti in the public urinal. govt better wipes it off. Otherwise I am going to cry.

  16. Sayan

    please take your pills after and not before food.

  17. my!! This just might create a lot of Sibaling rivalry… 🙂

  18. @moonuranus- I am not asking for tissues, but I do feel there are issues where government has to step in, and I do not see the analogy between a public urinal and something posted on the net where millions have access!

  19. Exactly for the reasons you’ve outlined in this post in combination with a lot of other factors, I cant wait to get into a good B-school somewhere outside and get the hell out. Ive done my entire schooling,college in Mumbai and now work with Infosys in Pune. So ive got a lot to be grateful for, but the bad far outstrips the good ive experienced.

  20. @Sayan: how exactly does the government decide what is worthy of action and what is not? Or is it whatever you find offensive? Hypothetically, if I post that Rajnikant is an idiot (i never will of course), is it justified that the government take action against me or my post? After all millions of people do worship Rajnikant and would be rightly offended by him being called an idiot.

  21. “1) criminal acts are criminal acts and should be punished as such and that speech or artistic expressions should not be used as justifications for such acts”
    What would you write about the statement from Modi-JI that violence of gujarat were ‘reaction to action’.
    I am not suggesting anything or judging anyone here. Just would like to know your thoughts.

  22. Interesting POV: difficult to dismiss outright for an Indian. We’re probably not ready yet as a nation for a desi First Amendment.

    PS Take care and get well soon!

  23. @ Rizwan
    Before you ask Greabong to answer questions on Narendra Modi…
    How would you react when the Koraan says, “Kafir (Hindu) women are worthy of slavery or conversion”.
    Should the Koraan be banned?
    I am not suggesting anything or judging anyone here. Just would like to know your thoughts 🙂

  24. Again simply superb. This “other” side of yours which I simply love. Please do come up with such posts more often.

  25. i hate hypocrites December 9, 2011 — 7:34 pm

    A brilliant piece of work…Get well soon

  26. Exactly, we cannot expect our representatives to be thinking differently when we ourselves cannot understand what freedom of speech means. Jaisa log waisa netha.

  27. Good to know you are back to good health…

  28. Its actually the mother of all bloopers for someone to propose such a rule; an almost waving the largest red flag in the world and say come – ram my ass….

    A line of thought that is increasingly sounding more realistic is that the Govt knew the kind of reaction that would arise and was intentionally introduced as a discussion point to deflect the attention from media given to Mayawati, FDI and Lokpal. Atleast they have the online community (and media) talking about freedom of speech (A safe debate for both parties to spend 10 years) and not worrying about media/ online buildup on more core issues

  29. There’s something to be said for manners, though!



  31. Koi mane ye na mane. Dictetorship is in congress’s DNA.

  32. @Sayan

    Certainly, there is nothing backward about being offended by something, and if you’re a religious person there’s no doubt that you will be offended by comments against your religion. But how does all this imply that it is the govt’s duty to protect you from being offended? Why should the govt shut up ideas and notions that you don’t approve of? It stands to reason that if you’re offended, you need to learn to deal with it in a mature manner without being violent about it.

    When you give the govt the power to shut up people, they’ll obviously use it like Sibal has done to protect his Queen.
    Not sure there are too many countries (developed ones included) in this world that would take favorably to adverse comments on them
    Sure, the likes of China and North Korea go to absurd lengths to stop adverse comments. But most of the developed world doesn’t. The net is chock-full of scathing criticism of the US, UK and Israel, most often uttered by citizens of these countries. Recently, Germany and Greece have been at the receiving end due to the EU crisis. They all allow it and are arguably stronger for it.

  33. Most of us, in practicality, would be loath to totally remove restrictions on free speech. The definition of free speech is also a little fuzzy here. Garlanding an Ambedkar statue with chappals or burning a Koran in “protest”, painting a Goddess nude – are all these examples of free speech that has to be defended? If we think that these are different categories, we have already discovered that the issue is more nuanced than we might think. All of us have different standards of what constitutes acceptable behavior. Of the three real-life example cited above, how many here would defend the right of the perpetrator to act in all of the three cases?

    So when Sayon says he is offended by some types of free speech, I can completely understand his point of view. Personally for me, none of the examples would matter enough to get into a lather about, but I can’t ask everyone to think as I do. Therefore, whether we like it or not (and I don’t) there has to be some “lines” that cannot be crossed. As to what those lines are, I do not know. However a few thumb rules might be created e.g. insults to religion not to be allowed, but insults to humans would be.

    As for the US, I absolutely love the concept of Free speech. Unfortunately they are far more accepting of pornographic free speech than political. Over the last 10 years, multiple people (including an Indian, Vikram Buddhi) have been jailed because of reasons like threatening the President via Facebook. Political rallies now have cordoned off areas, ironically called “free speech zones” (thanks to Bush), far away from the dais where protesters are forced to congregate. As the Americans like to say – Freedom is not free. 🙂

  34. What a gem of an article! Marvellous. You should get this published in some newspaper.
    The fact that people have multiple roles and identities and all of those may not be in sync with a law/ ideal is the real takeaway for me. This would apply for corruption as well.

  35. Kudos and max respects GB.
    When it came to political matters, I have never really used to like your posts, for I felt you tend to veer too far the right. But since the beginning of the Anna movement, I feel your posts have become more balanced in exposing the ills that plague Indian polity.

    And in response to your post, I can only quote Voltaire – “”I disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”.

  36. And as for “Hustler vs. Falwell”, if some ran that ad about me I would have sued too – “Mom looked better than a Baptist whore with a $100 donation, …” – seriously?? 😛

  37. Shan, I would defend the last two of the three actions you mentioned – in principle only! The first one would in my view be an act of vandalism, if it is a public / private monument (I’m not a legal expert obviously). But then that is a personal position. If a mjaority of our society does not feel comfortable with burning Koran / Gita / Bible, one has to respect that (arguably preventing such burnings does not impinge on anyone’s fundamental rights).

    In all these discussions, the important thing is to look at not only the ideal but also the practical. If you are a civil / police administrator, you would never in a million years allow something so inflammatory as a Koran burning! When drawing a parallel between various societies, one cannot ignore the ground realities in these. Lastly, in India it is mostly political parties / troublemakers who prevent free speech and use violence to suppress it. And they do it with impunity knowing fully well they will not be punished. It has nothing to do with the average person – who may vehemently oppose MF Hussain’s righ to paint certain things, but is not prone to ransacking a studio / gallery.

  38. Shan

    Agree with you completely that everybody has different standards. It seems therefore, that you can either go with the person with much more restrictive standards, or with the person with more liberal standards.

    The first option is simply a slippery slope – it promotes competitive intolerance. This cottage industry has done little more than provide jobs to a lot of unsavoury elements of the right wings of various religions, giving them a “socially relevant” fig leaf to justify their penchant for violence.

    Exactly why the liberal standards are more applicable and practical, especially on the internet.

    Personally for me, none of the examples would matter enough to get into a lather about, but I can’t ask everyone to think as I do.

    But that is exactly what the illiberal side does – they demand that NOBODY should have the right to think in any way they do not approve of. On the other hand, allowing free expression (including burning books and painting goddesses) doesn’t force anybody to think in a particular direction. People who don’t like it are always free to ignore it.
    insults to religion not to be allowed

    Who decides what is an “insult to the religion”? What are the chances that the Bal Thackerays and the Deoband ulema will not wield significant influence over this?

  39. Good article, but some even better posts. Chiron, wonderfully stated! Every society restricts free speech to some extent. The classic example is that of shouting “Fire” in a crowded theater, and how that cannot be condoned, but most statements are not that.
    A society’s tolerance can be measured by the amount it circumscibes free speech, the more tightly it draws that circle of allowed speech, the less liberal and tolerant it is.

  40. Why not just flag a content which is considered “objectionable” with a warning and give a brief description on why it is considered objectionable – and if the user is above 18 he/she can decide to view it or not. Just like they treat some of the material with mature content online. Until unless it is some kind of intellectual or personal property (in which case it should rightfully be removed) – it does not hurt anyone’s sentiments and at the same time does not compromise free speech…..

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