The tragedy of Indian democracy seems to be that the only people protected by the Right to Freedom of Speech and Expression are those who misuse it. Thus, while an M.F. Husain and a Salman Rushdie have to flee the country, and an Ashis Nandy has to apologise over and over again to avoid arrest, people like Praveen Togadia, Akbaruddin Owaisi and Raj Thackeray are ‘leaders’ who contest elections, and are supposed to be the representatives of the people of the Democratic Republic of India.
The Government has failed to uphold this privilege granted by the Constitution in two ways – by letting the wrong people get punished, and by not punishing the people who deserve it.
Till his death, Husain could not enter India because his paintings hurt Hindu sentiments. Rushdie’s every visit is clouded with anxiety because his Satanic Verses hurt Muslim sentiments. Why cannot our Government ensure that extremist elements stay in check?
Yet people like Varun Gandhi and Raj Thackeray openly indulge in hate rhetoric. Why can’t there be firm action against such people, under section 153a of the IPC (promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion, race, place of birth, residence, language, etc., and doing acts prejudicial to maintenance of harmony)?
There was a howl of protest against a statement made by Ashis Nandy at the recently concluded Jaipur Literary Festival, decrying him as casteist. Yet, caste-based mobilisation of the electorate is an accepted strategy in our ‘democratic’ elections. Isn’t it a perverse joke on what we understand as free speech and democracy in this country?
Despite its many other failings, the UPA Government is still supposed to be the ‘liberal’ alternative available to the Indian electorate. Many voters, who dislike many things that the UPA does, vote for it because they can not accept the outright right wing that the BJP is. The UPA should realise that failure on its part to protect free speech, by not ensuring that punishments are meted out only, and definitely, where deserved, constitutes a betrayal to its supporters, and to the Indian constitution.
(Yashee studies at Presidency College, Kolkata.)