FREE speech appears to be under attack in India. There are comedians who are in jail or are facing criminal contempt proceedings. It’s hard to miss the chilling effect. Last week, the Madhya Pradesh High Court rejected the bail pleas of comedians Munawar Faruqui and Nalin Yadav, who were arrested for allegedly hurting religious sentiments during an event in Indore. Comedian Kunal Kamra and comic artist Rachita Taneja are facing criminal contempt of court proceedings before the Supreme Court for allegedly scandalising the judiciary by their tweets. Maintaining that it would be an overestimation of his abilities to suggest that his tweets could shake the foundations of ‘the most powerful court in the world’, Kamra has complained about a growing culture of intolerance ‘where taking offence is seen as a fundamental right and is elevated to the status of a much-loved national indoor sport.’
Free speech has never been an easy proposition. Almost 24 centuries ago, Socrates was executed for corrupting the youth of Athens and showing irreverence towards the gods. The persecution and death of scientists in pre-Renaissance Europe still remain a grim reminder of the risks involved. Galileo was sentenced to house arrest at the instance of the Catholic Church for his heliocentric views, while Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake.
In most parts of the Islamic world, blasphemy remains a crime punishable with death. In India, Kamlesh Tiwari was killed in 2019 for his allegedly blasphemous statements about Islam. Celebrated author Salman Rushdie’s book The Satanic Verses was banned for fear of violence. Painter MF Husain left India after several criminal cases were filed against him for his paintings that allegedly offended religious sentiments. Often, India witnesses violent protests against films. There are two main villains of free speech — the State and religion. Ironically, when it’s under threat from the religion, the State comes to the rescue of citizens. One turns to the judiciary when aggrieved by the State’s actions. Unlike the US, free speech in India is not absolute. The State can impose ‘reasonable restrictions’ on eight grounds, including contempt of court and public order. Courts decide the cases based on evidence, laws and precedents. As for citizens, it’s time to push the envelope.