TOI Debate on Freedom of Speech Wows Kolkata
TNN | Feb 16, 2015
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 wrestled 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.
The thick lines and the thin lines that Bachi was talking about are very subjective. The best thing to do is have no lines," he said.
Tewari's presentation met with some strong interjections by Akbar. The engagement that followed was one of the high points of the debate.
CONVERSE: The Times of India debate on freedom of speech at Tollygunj club in Kolkata. From left to right: Sorabh Pant, Manish Tewari, Prashant Bhushan, Arindam Sengupta (centre, moderator), Bachi Karkaria. Mohua Moitra and MJ Akbar. (TOI photo by Kamalendu Bhadra)
When Akbar said one has to draw a line on hate speech, Tewari replied, "I think in our mind we have to evolve to a level where we can ignore hate speech. That's more important." Moderator Sengupta observed that the media is often gagged through criminal defamation.
"An editor has to go from court to court for the obscurest of cases," he said. Tewari pointed out that there is a proposal lying with the Union ministry of law which, if implemented, could serve as a remedy.
Moitra made an impassioned plea against the absolute. She quoted an American judge who wrote, "You cannot go to a crowded theatre and shout, 'fire'.... You cannot have that absolute freedom. That's why we need limitations." Mitra sought to underline the effect hate speech has on people who can go to "the next village, burn, rape and kill". She pointed out that there are different kinds of freedom. "When you quote John F Kennedy and Nelson Mandela and say freedom is indivisive, what freedoms are we talking about? We are talking about freedom of life, liberty and equal opportunity. Those are different freedoms. Freedom is a pie but every slice does not taste the same. Freedom without responsibility would lead us into anarchy." She said the 'Charlie Hebdo' cartoons were offensive. "The massacre is not correct but shouldn't there be sensitivity to the world we live in? Freedom of opportunity, of expression can only be absolute when the freedom to incite and insult is toned down." Mitra's speech prompted a series of interjections. The moderator had to finally step in. Pant, the stand-up comic, was just what the doctor ordered at this stage. He began by saying that, with two lawyers on his side, he fancied his team's chances. "That's like half the battle won. One of them is Prashant Bhushan, a senior AAP member. And I also noticed that the opposition again has three seats." That had everybody cracking up and clapping.
He batted for absolute right to free speech. "I want someone to question, deny and disprove all the hate speech-wallahs of this country. That will only happen if somebody is allowed to make a hate speech against the hate speech and completely neutralize it," he said, to loud cheers.
Akbar focused on blasphemy. "There's an elephant in this hall which we have not addressed and I think it is time, if we want to take this matter seriously," he said. "The tongue can also wound and the wound inflicted by the tongue goes straight to the heart. They don't lacerate the body, they lacerate the heart. And the heart remembers much longer than the mind. And that's the problem with any wounds inflicted in the sphere of blasphemy.... Blasphemy is injury to the icons of the faith. You don't have to be abusive," he said.
He said India is the only country where you can get up in the morning hear Azaan, followed by the temple bells nearby, the Paath from a Gurdwara and the sound of church bells. "No other country in the world allows this. And in order to protect it... this freedom should be protected with a sense of responsibility." The debate was persuasive enough to make you switch sides time and again. It was thought provoking and enriching. Which side emerged on top? Any cricket umpire would say, it was a tie. But undeniably, the audience had plenty of takeaways.
They were the real winners.