Sunday, January 25, 2015

Republic Day Lecture: On Freedom of Speech

Much has been made of freedom of speech in India and indeed, in the world. World over, there exists the full spectrum of freedom (or lack of it) - from the absolute freedom in the US to the virtual ban on it in military and Islamic dictatorships. In India, we have been grappling with the concept since Independence, as one set of values has clashed with another in a continuous churn.

The Source
But where did this debate arise from? Why should the freedom to say what you think have to come from a source - the Constitution - instead of being inherent, as human beings who are born with the natural ability to think and speak? To understand, we must understand that our Constitution is, after all, a social contract, and not the only one in the country (though the only written one). Traditions within communities and accepted norms between them also constitute unwritten social contracts.

Words, after all, are more than mere words, they are powerful weapons. Who would've guesses that the ideals of freedom of the French Revolution would one day transform the world, those of the American Revolution would one day change the very idea of sovereignty, that Mahatma Gandhi's words would one day bring down segregation in America and South Africa? Words are powerful, they carry a great power, just as action does. One of the core tenets of any democratic Constitution is to protect citizens from violence - violence by action.

But what of violence by words? If actions can be controlled, if the state can monopolize it, then why not words that have the same effect as violent actions?

Objectivity 
The reason, it seems, is that the damage caused by violence is measurable - numbers killed, wounded or disabled can be counted. Levels of disability can be quantified. Damage to property and life can be expressed in monetary terms. But the psychological damage of words that hurt cannot - it lingers on forever, sometimes attenuating and sometimes amplifying in fits of rage.

And this is the precise problem why any written social contract cannot, such as our Constitution, cannot justify any restrictions on speech, because there is simply no objective measure of it. What hurts one may not hurt another. The Supreme Court prefers to look at it in terms of a 'reasonable man' but even that interpretation is left to the judges themselves, which can change as the court and society itself changes. Simply put, there is no objective way to define the damage caused by words, which means there is also no objective way to punish the violence it wreaks.

This is the reason why the original Constitution of India, which came into effect this day 66 years ago, allowed for free speech with no restrictions. It was only a few years later, with the First Amendment, that restrictions were placed on them and since then, the debate has continued. The answer is not simple, but it is right in front of us. The Constitution of India has been in force for 66 years, but Indian history goes back 5,000 years beyond it. Traditions and community values have defined the contours of free speech in the civilization in a way that no written contract ever can. Perhaps it is time to return to the society we really are, if we are to find solutions that can survive.

On this the 66th Republic Day of India, Opinions 24x7 greets its readers. Jai Hind! 

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