Justice Bobde who is set to take oath as the 47th Chief Justice of India on November 18, spoke to TOI about the critical issue of ‘freedom of speech’ and how there is a disparity in the level of freedom of speech afforded to different categories. Justice Bobde said that there are two sides of freedom of speech with some “getting away with anything and everything in public and social media platforms,” while others “get manhandled for expressing their views.” He added, “The conflict is apparent. Some have great freedom of speech. There has never been an era where freedom of speech has had such width for some people.” He also remarked that on the other hand, some people face problems even though they are not vocal.
Justice Bobde’s remarks come at a time when the country has been going through an intense debate about free speech and expression. A particular section of citizens consisting of elites has been trying to portray itself as the intelligentsia of the country and has been consistently claiming that it holds a monopoly over wisdom. This elitist section has also appropriated to itself the right to decide the level of freedom of speech that a particular ideological or social group enjoys. In fact, with the kind of influence that it enjoys, it has assumed the right of deciding what is absolutely insensitive and therefore unspeakable and what warrants greater tolerance of the society. This has led to a stark imbalance in the extent of freedom of speech enjoyed by different sections of society.
Take the case of former Hindu Mahasabha leader Kamlesh Tiwari, for example, a man against whom several Fatwas were issued because some Maulvis considered his remarks to be insulting towards Prophet Muhammad. In the month of December 2015, 1 lakh Muslims took to streets demanding death penalty for Kamlesh Tiwari. This, of course, was not perceived as a threat to free speech, rather he was arrested by the UP Police during the days of the Samajwadi government and also charged under the National Security Act (NSA). Almost four years later, he was killed in broad daylight at his Lucknow residence over his Prophet remarks. What followed was dispassionate reporting by mainstream media outlets and no real outrage against how a man was murdered in broad daylight merely for speaking his mind in a free, democratic society governed by Rule of Law. This is in sharp contrast to the narrative that the leftists are allowed to pursue when it comes to Hindi deities. The leftists get to regularly demean Lord Rama and ridicule him as a misogynist who compelled his wife to go through an ‘Agni Pariksha’ (trial by fire) and then also deserted his pregnant wife. Of course, these self-acclaimed intellectuals have no real idea of the true essence of the Sanskrit Epic Ramayana and their entire version of Lord Rama’s character is based upon deliberate misinterpretations and concoctions. What is important to understand here is that while Prophet Muhammad has been given the status of somebody who is beyond criticism, Hindu deities are seen as ordinary objects who can be ridiculed and slandered without any fear.
However, this major gap in the level of freedom of speech afforded to different categories is not limited only to matters of religion. Even in the political sphere, there is an ever-increasing chasm between the level of free speech enjoyed by different outfits. Priyanka Sharma, a BJP youth leader, for example, was arrested merely for allegedly sharing a morphed picture of the West Bengal Chief Minister, Mamata Banerjee. This again was in sharp contrast to the kind of political narrative that is pursued against the BJP by the opposition that does not even spare PM Modi. While a morphed picture was seen as objectionable, remarks like khoon ki dalali (brokering blood) and maut ka saudagar (merchant of death) that have been used against PM Modi and former Gujarat CM Modi by Rahul Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi respectively. There is not much to differentiate between a morphed picture and the kind of remarks made about PM Modi. The remarks against PM Modi only seem far more defamatory and damaging. However, the fact remains that a powerful lobby has been getting to decide what is to be considered as objectionable and what falls purely within the domain of free speech and expression. With this capricious power at their disposal, they have relentlessly pursued their ideological and political goals.
The manner in which the left decides the narrative in JNU, a left-dominated Central University also shows how the right to freedom of speech has been hijacked by certain vested interests. With the exception of the sedition episode, these elements usually get away with their nefarious activities. Even after the sedition episode, these elements have continued with an anti-India narrative. In 2017 a year after the sedition episode, Kashmir event was once again held in JNU on the death anniversary of Afzal Guru, a terrorist who was hanged after being convicted in the Parliament terror attack case. This shows how the leftists in JNU continue to undermine India’s interests, despite a national outrage in 2016. All this in the garb of freedom of speech.
It is befuddling how a particular set of citizens assumes that freedom of speech extends to systematically targeting the religious beliefs of Hindus, hurling abuses at somebody like the Prime Minister of the country and even going to the extent of undermining national interest. This is a rather broad ambit that has been given to the right of free speech. On the other hand, there is another group of citizens who faces violence, arrest and even death threats at the slightest of provocations. There is clearly a stark disparity in the right to freedom of speech which does not augur well for constitutional democracy. The equality clause is a basic feature of the Constitution of India and as such the right to free speech cannot be arbitrarily interpreted for different sets of citizens, based on mere political or ideological differences.