The recent spat andaccompanying violence perpetrated by various fringe groups (especially KarniSena ) over the film ‘Padmavat’ aptly testify the lack of substantive freedomof speech and expression in the world’s largest democracy . The film facedunprecedented restrictions in the history of Bollywood – missing its initialrelease date of Dec 1, 2017, forced to change the title itself from ‘Padmavati’to Padmavat , its filmmakers and actors’ life constantly being threatened . Notonly this, even after being approved by the Central Board of FilmCertification, highest authority to rule in matters of film certification, thefilm was banned by the state governments of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Gujaratand Uttar Pradesh under the influence of fringe groups – an apt example of howmuch heed government pay to institutions like CBFC .Finally, the Supreme Courthas to be petitioned to get these illogical bans removed. The Padmavat has notbeen an exception but rather history of Bollywood has been a history ofillogical restrictions put upon the creativity of filmmakers by theinstitutions like CBFC -‘Lipstick Under MyBurkha’, ‘Ae Dil Hai Mushkil’ , ‘Udta Punjab’ to name a few . However, itshould be highlighted that the case of fringe groups taking a centre stage andbecoming a decisive factor in influencing the release of a film has rarelyhappened before the Padmavat . This is only one aspect hampering freedom ofspeech and expression.
It is pertinent to discuss various nuances of this righthere. The Constitution of India under Article 19(1)(a) has provided eachcitizen a fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression . It impliesthat every citizen has the right to express his views, opinions, belief andconvictions freely by word of mouth, writing, printing, picturing or in anyother way. Though fundamental , the State can impose reasonable restrictions onthe exercise of this right on the grounds of sovereignty and integrity of India, security of the state , friendly relations with foreign states , public order, decency or morality , contempt of court , defamation , and incitement ofviolence . But, a proper demarcation between restriction and freedom has notbeen drawn and thus, at times, government has been misusing this weapon intheir hands for their vested interests. Though the freedom ofpress does not find a separate enunciation, it is a part of Article 19 (1)(a)as per the decisions of Supreme Court .
India is ranked 136th out of 180nations in the World Press Freedom Index by Reporters Without Borders is a bigblot on high democratic credentials Indians boast off . As per media watchdogHoot’s 2017 report, 54 journalists have came under attack in 2016-17. What thestories behind each attack clearly bring to the fore is that journalism,especially investigative reporting, is increasingly becoming a dangerousoccupation. If the increasing attacks on journalists are worrisome, so is thefact that the state wields a strict baton when it comes to news that may not beto their liking.
The Andhra Pradesh-based Sakshi TV discovered to theirsurprise that their outspoken coverage of the Kapu agitation – led by a formerminister – left their channel blocked in the state. Andhra is not theonly state to have used these means of censorship. In Kashmir, after BurhanWani’s killing, the media was harassed and censored, with two of the largestnewspaper offices raided and printing presses shut down. The Kashmir Reader,which was doing on ground reporting of the situation in the Valley found itselflabeled anti-national and banned for three months. On the national front, thepresent government has been widely criticized for trying to put a one-day banon NDTV in November 2016 due to the allegation that it showed sensitive detailsregarding the militant attack on the Pathankot airbase. The June 2017 CBIraid on the offices and house of NDTV executive Prannoy Roy has been describedby the media fraternity as direct assault on their independence .
Apart fromthis, violence has been inflicted by groups, who think content unfavorable tothem has been broadcasted. Satish Deshpande, a professor of sociology at theUniversity of Delhi, thinks the government’s failure to condemn this violencehas contributed to its normalization and, in turn, an increase inself-censorship. The World Press Freedom Index, too, noted thatself-censorship is on the rise in Indian mainstream media. Another important issueto be highlighted here is the ever-increasing use of sedition laws beginningwith the JNU incident – over 35 cases have been registered in 2016 undersedition charges (Section 124A of IPC). The jingoistic political bodies likeABVP have created tensed environment throughout the educational institutionssuch as the one which took place in Ramjas College as Umar Khalid was invitedfor a literary event in the campus. Archaic Sedition laws at least require tobe reviewed if not deleted.
Also, according to The Hoot, the internet was shutdown 31 times in India in 2016, and 14 times in 2017 (till May). Theseinternet shutdowns take place under Section 14 of the Criminal Procedure Code(CrPC), despite questions of the constitutional validity of such actions andwho the power lies with. This certainly highlights the government’sincompetence to handle the situation through other means and willfully takingaway from citizens the right to connect them throughout the world, which hasbecame a necessity of 21st century.
All this aptly showsthat citizens’ freedom to speech and expression is restricted on various countsand most times on baseless reasons. This trend has certainly increased with thecoming of new government in the centre in 2014. Its high time that thegovernment should understand the importance of this right and the adverseeffect arbitrary restrictions bring for the functioning of our democracy.
Thejudiciary could also play a vital role in protecting the citizens’ right bydrawing a clear demarcation between freedom and restrictions so that misuse bygovernment becomes difficult. The civil society should maintain its vigor andenthusiastically fight against every arbitrary restriction put up by thegovernment. Also, fringe groups and jingoistic elements should be foughtagainst to maintain the essentially democratic charter of our country. Lastly,it would be in the interests of citizens and lead to enforcement of theirrights if each individual obey the reasonable restrictions. All these wouldsurely require some time to become a reality but the future society wouldcertainly become FREER AND HAPPIER.