The freedom to express is an innate human attribute that people have fought and died defending through the ages against various institutional forces. The right to free speech has struggled against religious and political dogma, and continues to do so even as the tenets of democracy, secularism and human rights have been indoctrinated in the constitutions of democracies across the world. The case of India and Pakistan is no different. This ‘universal’ freedom remains elusive because political convenience tends to determine its scope. There are plenty of cases in India where the freedom of expression ceases to exist as an apolitical right, being irresponsibly slapped with serious charges like sedition or the incitement of hatred. Activists like Binayak Sen who demanded the central government to give the tribes of Red Belt their Constitutional rights, and writers like Arundati Roy who regularly invoked the political narrative of a free Kashmir have been branded traitors for their views. Even the case of Aseem Trivedi, a cartoonist who was charged with sedition for remaking the Indian national symbol of the 3 lions with 3 jackals to highlight political corruption, is another unfortunate indictment of the freedom we are supposedly guaranteed.
Social sensitivities, ideologies, beliefs, symbols all are human constructions, as fragile and imperfect as their creators. Just like people, they cannot be exempt from questioning, criticism, even ridicule. There is a very clear difference between criticism and hate speech. It is the foolishness and irresponsibility of the critic to ever espouse hate and defend it as criticism. Yet at the same time, any belief comes with responsibility. The doctrines of global faiths are as morally potent as the constitutions of secular nations, and those who espouse hate, crackdown on freedom and commit violence in their name are pseudo- believers, believers plagued by an insecurity of identity, or even an insidious nature. To them, the violent defence of a belief outweighs the need for self-reflection within a doctrine of faith, causing a constant confusion between criticism and hate. If one’s identity is associated with an ideology, that conviction should exist beyond the spatial temporal boundaries of the world for the individual to be truly called a proponent of that belief. In that case, the criticism of a name or a symbol can never shake the conviction of identity.
I was discussing the case of Danish cartoons of the Prophet with my friend from Pakistan one day. He criticised the publishing of the cartoons saying the freedom of another individual ends where his begins. All I asked him was in what way did the negative expressions of the cartoons shake his faith in Islam? Similarly, how does a youtube video titled ‘Innocence of Muslims’ threaten the faith of half the Muslim world where it became the root of wanton destruction. In Pakistan, why does a Muslim need blasphemy laws to defend the sanctity of his or her faith?
Aseem Trivedi’s cartoon ridiculing the national emblem can never shake my faith in my country. Its ridicule is nothing compared to traitorous political corruption. Those guilty of political corruption should in fact be charged with sedition for betraying the state, not a cartoonist using shock rhetoric to highlight a crucial issue, like all artists have done through the ages.
The health of a democracy is derived from how diverse and competitive its marketplace of ideas is. All narratives; the liberal, the moral, the realist and the insidious must confront each other without the fear of being gagged by authorities. National doctrines can only be strengthened if the responsible narrative emerges victorious from that confrontation. Political figures and thought leaders must battle for the victory of those narratives in the public sphere and not concede defeat by suppressing expression. The constantly recycled argument that people get negatively influenced is not valid as it assumes the citizenry is stupid, and cannot perceive the truth behind rhetoric or expression. The argument sets a poor precedent, making something as serious as sedition and blasphemy an easy weapon against free speech.
I commend the news media and the citizenry of India and Pakistan who do their part in defending the freedom of expression. Our democracies are strengthened by our actions. While we can’t perfectly mitigate the political convenience of clamping down on free speech; we can speak up against it so that such actions do not occur in our name.
Ayushman Jamwal is a political journalist based in New Delhi