Freedom of expression is a dangerous term these days. Being committed to its cause can get you killed, like the ‘Charlie Hebdo’ cartoonists. Or, you could be hounded so viciously you might even announce your own death as a writer, like Perumal Murugan. And you can be forced to go underground, like the bold woman editor of an Urdu newspaper. The list is growing alarmingly every week.
But there’s been a passionate counter to this narrative, too. Many insist that all freedoms are relative and they must be enjoyed with restraint and responsibility, especially in matters of faith.
Which is why there couldn’t have been a better topic than “Should freedom of expression be an absolute right?” for The Times of India’s annual debate, Converse. And which is why the city’s best and brightest turned up Friday evening at the Tollygunge Club to hear some of the wittiest and sharpest minds in the country lock horns and trade jibes on the subject and perhaps clear the noise in their own heads.
Those batting for absolute freedom were activist lawyer and AAP member Prashant Bhushan, Congress leader and lawyer Manish Tewari and standup comic Sorabh Pant. The other side had BJP national spokesperson and columnist M J Akbar, journalist and humour writer Bachi Karkaria and West Bengal Trinamool Congress general-secretary Mahua Moitra. Arindam Sengupta, national executive editor, Times of India, was the moderator.
The weather was almost made to order. And the setting an expansive 40 foot by 24 foot stage with seductive profile lights was perfect for, as Anil Mukerji, the club’s CEO said in his welcome note, some “robust cerebral jousting”.
It all began with Bhushan’s opening remark, “I don’t hold the position that freedom of speech is an absolute right. And that there should not be any restriction on it whatsoever. But I do believe that freedom of speech and the right to free speech is the most important right that the Constitution gives us and that right is absolutely essential for the survival of any healthy democracy.” He pointed out that the Constitution says there can be “reasonable restrictions” on this right on grounds of security of the state, public order, friendly relations with foreign states, contempt of court, defamation and morality. The core of his argument was: “Free speech can only be gagged if there is incitement to violence or public disorder.
And under no other circumstances can it be a gag even if it is defamatory, or even if it is offensive.” The opposition, however, latched on to his opening remark to underline the inconsistency of his position. Mitra quipped, “I thought you should be sitting on this side.” And Akbar had everyone in splits saying, “How can I interject when I agree with him completely?” What followed was a perfect demonstration of how a serious topic needn’t be hostage to seriousness. Everyone was in splits when Karkaria referred to Modi’s infamous suit as “a pinstriped selfie” and said cocky BJP politicos were getting “mufflered”. On a more serious note, she pointed out that many communities throughout history Christians, Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, women, homosexuals had been victimized because people had used absolute freedom of speech to incite mob frenzy against them. Referring to the Holocaust, Karkaria said Jews ended up in the gas chamber because Goebbels was allowed to spew poison with his propaganda. “There is always a thin line between perfect and legitimate freedom of speech and its abuse by those who wish to assert their powers. All civilized and sophisticated discourse is about thin lines. Thick line are only for thick people,” she concluded.
Bhushan’s interjection was, the right to speech must be protected as long as there is no clear incitement to violence or public disorder, even if it is something which may sound grossly offensive to somebody else. “Otherwise, you are on that slippery slope where every kind of attempt to reform or to challenge the orthodoxy is going to be gagged,” he said.
The stage was set for Tewari’s insightful and measured presentation. He said, rather unambiguously, that freedom of expression should be an absolute right. “Freedom is indivisible. The moment you splice it up, it ceases to be free,” he said. The Congress leader quoted John Milton, referred to US Congress’ first amendment, the Indian Constitution and the European human rights convention to explain that as history progressed, mankind has become repressive rather than progressive on the issue of freedom of speech. He said this freedom must include the right to offend. “You can have a quarrel with `Charlie Hebdo’ but that does not mean you go and massacre them. That is not a remedy against a perceived or real offence … Religion possibly requires the most rigorous debate and the most scrutiny in our society.”
Tewari recalled his days as the Union minister of information and broadcasting, when he wres tled with the problem of drawing lines. “If I decide to draw the line right here, there may be a religious bigot who would decide to draw it more to the right.
TOI debate on freedom of speech wows Kolkata – The Times …