Let a thousand flowers bloom

Our getting increasingly intolerant to ideas we differ with places the democratic polity in serious jeopardy.

By Author L Ravichander   |   Published: 20th Nov 2017   12:05 am Updated: 20th Nov 2017   12:34 am

The protests against the possible release of Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Padmavati is already spilling on to the streets and protesters have revisited the strategy of arm-twisting. This follows in the wake of the protests against another film starring matinee idol Vijay. While the Tamil version of the film drew crowds in large numbers to the theatres, its dubbed version in Telugu was postponed. The original version has a reference to the imposition of Goods and Services Tax (GST) at the fag end of the film and this was not to the liking of some great patriots.

In his farewell address (September 1796) George Washington had said: “the very idea of power and the right of the people to establish Government presupposes the duty of every individual to obey the established law.” He went on to add that: “and remember, especially, that for the efficient management of your common interests in a country so extensive as ours, a government of as much vigour as is consistent with the perfect security of liberty is indispensable.”

Quite Disquieting

There is a clear worrisome pattern in arm-twisting. Muscle power or collective bargaining on the street is becoming a worry and a challenge for the Rule of Law. Let me quote from the famous Da Vinci Code judgment, “We enjoy a shared membership of the human race and our future depends on tolerance of distinctions that mark the richness and diversity of the plural global community of man. Faith, race, religion, dogma or culture are not wholly homogeneous attributes. There are several clear subtle and evolving variations within the same general milieu.”

The fact that we are getting increasingly politically intolerant to ideas we differ with places the democratic polity in serious jeopardy. Political and social intolerance is anathema to a democracy. It is strange that today political activists of every hue and colour are engaged in seriously challenging the freedom of expression. The need to arrest the trend cannot be overemphasised.

Closed to Criticism

Two disturbing incidents come to mind. In a recent incident, a cartoonist in a neighbouring State is facing criminal charges for lampooning the Chief Minister and certain other persons ‘in high places’. In another, certain criticisms against our own Chief Minister has resulted in a criminal case being registered against the person making the criticism. The Chief Minister is too charismatic a leader for such fig leaf protection. His persona is larger than life and such petty approach to handle criticism is wholly out of character.

Remember Amartya Sen who said: “The prospects of peace in the contemporary world may well lie in the recognition of the plurality of our affiliations and in the use of reasoning as common inhabitants of a wide world, rather than making us into inmates rigidly incarcerated in little containers. What we need, above all, is a clearheaded understanding of the importance of the freedom that we can have in determining our priorities. And, related to that understanding, we need an appropriate recognition of the role and efficacy of reasoned public voice within nations and across the world.”

It is indeed unfortunate when courts entertain such complaints on the basis of private complaints. It is indeed unfortunate that a person who makes a cartoon or who even makes a comment against a Chief Minister runs the risk of being arrested and prosecuted.

Dangerous Precedent

This truly puts the citizen on guard. It stifles the right to expression and the legal system should ensure that it is insulated from such abuse. While the State may take the fig leaf excuse of law and order in ensuring safety and social harmony, courts while entertaining such private complaints must ensure that they are not abused as anti-freedom of speech agencies. This could be a dangerous precedent.

Dealing with the film Da Vinci Code, which was opposed by certain sections because ‘the controversial storyline in the novel depicts Jesus in a poor light and that might hurt the religious sentiments of Christian community’, our High Court struck down the ban.

Reference is made to the provisions of the Cinematograph Act, which lays down that “a film shall not be certified for public exhibition if, in the opinion of the authority competent to grant the certificate, the film or any part of it is against the interests of (the sovereignty and integrity of India) the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign State, public order, decency or morality or involves defamation or contempt of Court or is likely to incite the commission of any offence.”

Primacy of Freedom

If this be the litmus test, wonder how Bhansali’s take on Padmavati (assuming it to be historically incorrect!!) or Bala’s cartoon or a critical comment of the Chief Minister could involve a criminal case or advocate a ban.

Justice Bhagwati said “the fundamental right to the freedom of speech and expression enshrined in … our Constitution is based on (the provisions in) Amendment I of the Constitution of the United States … and it would be therefore legitimate and proper to refer to those decisions of (the US Supreme Court) to appreciate the true nature, scope and extent of this right in spite of the warning administered by this Court against use of American and other cases.”

We in India would perhaps not give freedom of expression the primacy the Americans do. The challenge is not to reduce it either to a mere theory or a fantasy.

(The author is a designated Senior Advocate)