In the world’s largest democracy, does freedom of speech and expression really exist as a right? Or is it a concept not equally applicable to all? It is high time that these questions be answered as recent instances make us question our own fundamental rights.
The supreme court has recognised that on “open discussion and expression” cannot be curtailed by the state, no matter how “hateful” it could be to the government policies. Additionally, it has also been stipulated by the hon’ble court that any criticism to the government or its decision cannot be ground for curtailment of freedom of speech and expression, under any circumstance. However, despite all these leading precedents, people and specifically artists have to become the centre of vociferous hate for voicing their opinions.
An Indian Stand-up comic, Vir Das, has been yet again been embroiled in a hullabaloo for his recent monologue: The Story of Two Indias. Several complaints have been filed against him, alleging his involvement in making “indecent remarks against the country”. This is not the first instance wherein the comic has become the center of opprobrium. His recent Netflix special, Hasmukh, had also garnered a lot of attention.
In the light of the afore-mentioned instances, I aim to first establish the position of law rendering satire as an acceptable from of literary expression. Thereafter, inherent reasons behind the rising levels of intolerance in the Indian society would be highlighted in the course of the piece. Lastly, I would aim to provide certain suggestions in light of the same.
Satire: An accepted exception?
The Indian judiciary has proven to be cogent and consistent with their liberal interpretation of Article 19(1)(a). In a recent case, it was noted that the rights of artists portraying social reality in “all forms” must be protected. The necessity of permitting the use of satire by artists to voice their rightful dissent was also underscored by the court in the case.
The hon’ble court has also noted that the freedom of speech and expression should not be curtailed unless it is “intrinsically dangerous to public interests”. However, satire and comical illustrations have never been viewed as to be falling under this exception. To bolster this, the judgement of the Delhi High court may be noted:
“People do not view comments made by comedians as statements of truth but take them with a pinch of salt. Satire is a work of art. It is a literary work that ridicules its subject through the use of techniques like exaggeration”.
Therefore, the stance of the Indian judiciary is lucid. However, it becomes important to analyse the reason for the existing levels of intolerance despite a clear position in law.
Intolerance in the society: The Second India
Tolerance in a society is generally defined as the ability to not interfere with practices of people that can be deemed “negative” in a society. Convincingly, the virtue of tolerance thrives on the acceptance of varied unsettling beliefs. However, in a culturally diverse country like India, the ability to perceive acts that are not “normal” does not culminate in a tolerant manner. Usually, the society garners conflicting views about people who participate in voicing controversial opinions. This divides the society into sects of people having tolerant and intolerant views on the same aspect.
Interestingly, some scholars have attempted to reason the question: how do certain people remain tolerant and the rest intolerant, towards the same thing? This becomes pertinent to scrutinize especially due to the recent controversy snowballing different opinions within the same society. Sullivan & Pearson stipulate that intolerance generally stems from “close-mindedness or psychological rigidity”. However, in countries like India, several other factors like age, education, religion and gender, might also lead to conflicting levels of intolerance. It has been, time and again, portrayed that the rising intolerance within the Indian society has trammeled the fundamental right to speech and expression. The Supreme court had also noted that “contemporary events” in the Indian society point towards a growing sense of intolerance. It went on to acknowledge the presence of certain groups “pose a serios danger” to the freedom of speech and expression of others.
Vir Das, surprisingly, has not been the first target of this civil intolerance. A well-known comic, Munawar Faruqi has also witnessed the same. He was a victim of a systemic failure, in my opinion, when he was denied bail twice for almost a month on the ground of unfounded allegations. His controversy revolved around one of his shows in Indore, wherein he had allegedly made certain “indecent remarks” about Hindu gods and goddesses. Contrastingly, the same audience had many Hindus supporting him as well and the unfathomable allegations of four to five people led to the unfurling of unfortunate events for the comic. This was not the end for him as he was potentially viewed as someone who continually agitated religious sentiments of certain people. Recently, the comic had to cancel his shows in Goa due to numerous threats by a Hindutva Group. This came at a daunting time for the comic, as he had to previously cancel shows in various other states, due to the same reason.
The afore-mentioned incidents cited portray the deflecting levels of tolerance in the Indian society towards the same piece of art of person. The current state of affairs can lead to an unsettling environment wherein comics are afraid to voice out their well-founded opinions, incarcerating their birth right.
The Way Ahead
Intolerance cannot be completely curtailed in a country like ours as there will always be someone who would have opposing views to something. However, for a society that is not viewed as one that suppresses free speech, it becomes pertinent to explore some viable options to raise the level of tolerance within the citizens. In my opinion, starting from the grassroot level of an individual’s psyche can be beneficial. One pertinent suggestion could be to inculcate virtues of tolerance in the curriculum of students in India. The same has also been supported by the European council. This would not only open the floodgates of the thought process of the students but would also enable them to respect conflicting opinions than their own beliefs, at a very young age.
Secondly, there is an inherent need to create awareness about different opinions in the country and how the same are justified by law. More often than not, intolerance specially in the country is promoted by people who are not aware of the law. This creates unnecessary hurdles for people exercising their fundamental right.
Thirdly, and lastly, I believe that people creating intolerance should be stopped at the first instance before aggravating the same. In essence, if the people filing FIRs against Faruqi were reminded at the first instance only, about article 19(1)(a), then probably the current situation would have been something completely different. Therefore, awareness at the institutional level in the system is also a necessity.
It was rightly opined by the hon’ble court that “the unity of this country is an assumption of tolerance and a symbiosis of diversity”. Hence, it becomes necessary to ensure the implementation of the same.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Arundhati is a third-year law student pursuing a BA LLB (HONS.) from The West Bengal National University of Juridical Sciences, Kolkata. She is an associate editor at the Journal of Indian Law and Society.