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Freedom of speech and Expression: A Responsibility

Synopsis: This article throws light upon the intolerance of people in a democratic state towards the freedom of speech and expression when it comes to the matters concerning religion. It highlights the recent controversial statement by Zakir Naik which can turn to be hateful and can cause disrupt to the peace of the state.

Metaphysically speaking, speech is a gift from the gods to mankind. A human being conveys his ideas, feelings and perceptions to others through expression. Therefore, freedom of speech and expression is a fundamental right acquired by a human being upon birth and thus it becomes a basic human right. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) proclaims:

"Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; the right requires freedom to hold opinions without interference and to try and obtain and impart information and ideas through any media and without regard to frontiers."

Man as a human being wishes to do many things, but in a democratic society his desires must be managed, governed and reconciled with other individuals pursuing similar desires. Consequently, the assurance of each of the above right is limited in the greater interest of the nation by the constitution of the respective state. Similar is the situation in India in which, in the Preamble to the Constitution, the people of India have proclaimed their determination to ensure liberty of rational expression and speech for all citizens. This resolution is reflected in Article 19(1) (a), one of the articles found in Part III of the Constitution, which lists the fundamental rights. This right to freedom of speech and expression is subject to limitations imposed by Article 19(2).

Article 19(1)(a) of the Indian Constitution clearly states that all people have the right to freedom of expression and of speech. Freedom of speech and expression means the right to express one's own beliefs and opinions openly by words from mouth, writing, publishing, photography or any other method. Therefore, it involves the communication of one's idea by some communicable medium or visible representation, such as gesture, signs, etc. The term also connotes publications and is thus included in this definition as freedom of the press.

The article although has a wide scope, it is open to certain contradictions which have created various instances of debates and deliberations over this matter. Judicial ingenuity, judicial experience and judicial craftsmanship have broadened the spectrum of freedom of speech and expression over the years.

Democracy will flourish through the diligent eye of the Legislature, but also public sentiment and press care and advice par excellence. Freedom of speech involves the right to express one’s views through print media or any other medium of communication, e.g. radio, television, subject to appropriate restrictions placed pursuant to Article 19(2) - as stated in Romesh Thappar v. State of Madras[1], which was among the earliest cases to be decided by the Supreme Court in which freedom of the press was proclaimed as part of the proceedings. The Supreme Court in Tata Press Ltd. v. Mahanagar Telephone Nigam Ltd[2]submitted that a commercial advertisement or commercial speech was also part of the freedom of speech and expression and would be limited only within the limits of Article 19(2) thereof. The Supreme Court held that advertisement, which is nothing more than a commercial activity, is still the distribution of information about the advertised product. The details made available through the ads benefits the public at large. Free flow of commercial knowledge is crucial within a democratic economy.

However, in the recent times, there has been an issue of conflict between religion and liberty of expression towards it. In any democracy, what one thinks about any religion and how he or she expresses themselves in front of the public at large often raises questions over the sentiments of the audience and the respect for the religion of a fellow citizen. Religion and democracy can be seen as two contrasting concepts in the 21st Century. The freedom of speech has been checked in recent times in respect of religion. Religion has a profound influence on the political bodies in a pluralistic society such as ours. Concern over religious sensitivities has had a profound influence on the functioning of India's political bodies. India is best known as the world’s largest democracy. But, being a 'Market Democracy' is also acknowledged. Freedom of speech is known as the cardinal concept of the Constitution of India. The constitution enshrines the values of secularism and democracy as basic rights. But, religious intolerance is destroying the constitution's very tents. Freedom of speech will continue to be under attack until all parties accept that each person should have a different set of views and beliefs and a specific way of practicing a particular religion including one of their own. As Justice Chinnappa Reddy once observed, "our tradition teaches us intolerance, our philosophy preaches tolerance, our constitution practices tolerance, let us not dilute therefrom." Hon 'Justice's statement must be withheld; recent events have speeded up the danger of bigotry.

Recently, a video of the controversial Islamic preacher Zakir Naik is making social media rounds showing him urging all Islamic nations to collect data from non-Muslims living in India who have criticized Islam so that they can be detained when and when they land in their country. Naik has also supported the blasphemy law for their case.“Rich non-Muslims travel to the Gulf and different Muslim countries. If these Muslim countries have data of these people attacking or spreading venom against Muslims, they should arrest them under their (own) law once they enter their territory," he said verbatim.

The nature of these statements depicts the way people are intolerant of the fact that liberty of speech and expression is a right of each and every individual in any democratic country. This incites hatred and violence and is enough to cause jeopardy in any peace loving state. Neither violence nor religion can go hand in hand. Any attempt to undermine a healthy democracy's free speech is simply an attempt to jeopardize a free mind's development. Constitutional makers had envisaged the need to implement the laws required to protect freedom of religion and freedom of expression. Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution provides for freedom of speech and expression while Article 25-28 of the Constitution provides for freedom of religion. These provisions have been restricted by the makers with certain provisions to check for the misuse. Yet, in recent times, militant movements have jeopardized the use of certain protections within the constitutional structure.

Incidents like these shall be brought down and the same cannot be insured by any legal applications or sanctions of any kind. There is a wave of intolerance circulating across the country rather than being a Liberal Democracy. Recently, the nation has gained traction from growing hatred and extremism. Prime Minister Narendra Modi propounded the slogan of prosperity in 2014 and made a stable and developed country, but these claims seem to have died down. Seeing the latest cases of religious bigotry to suppress free speech, such as the cold blooded assassination of writers such as M.M. Kalburgi, Dabholkar and much more by Sanathan Sanstha or Dadri's lynching has generated a national debate about the growing power of extremism.

These incidents are the setbacks which dilute the development goals and hinder religious harmony. The citizens have protested about this rising extremism and have shown concern. Many poets, writers, have returned their prizes to Sahitya Academy (Award Wapsi), a way of protest. To this rising intolerance, many intellectuals, authors, actors, luminaries and people have raised their voices. There is no belief of Racism. The radicalization of amazing youth by Vishwa Hindu Parishad and his associates to join the terror groups or Hindu extremism does not represent a religious ideology. Their acts violate any religious doctrine and constitutional clause.

Concluding, it can be said that due to these kinds of violent incidents, many feel vulnerable for exercising their fundamental right to freedom of expression and speech. The danger of religious sensitivities curbing freedom of speech is not over yet, given the fact that courts have taken a judicious stand on many instances. There are several arbitrary and outdated provisions prevalent in the statutes which empower religious forces with the help of political bodies to abuse it. For instance section 295A of the Indian Penal Code; it will have to undergo judicial review as the five judge bench had upheld its constitutionality recently.

  • [1] 1950 SC 594, 607; AIR 1950 SC 124
  • [2]1995 AIR 2438, 1995 SCC (5) 139

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