An important point was raised at the recent Supreme Court hearing of a petition on remarks made made by a social psychologist (the remarks were construed to have hurt the sentiments of a section of Indian society). To a direct question put to the Bench by a counsel on whether an “idea” could be penalised under the law, the short and pithy answer was a resounding “yes”.
On the face of it, the stand of the Court is easily understandable and also acceptable. This may be opposed by some on the ground that it infringes the fundamental right of a citizen to free speech and expression, which is, of course, sacrosanct in the Constitution. But this is only one side of the picture.
There is another side as well, namely, the duties enjoined on the citizen — written or otherwise — without the effective implementation of which the rights guaranteed to citizens could become meaningless..
Mired in complications
However, certain situations may arise where the simplicity of the above maxim can be mired in complications, which the court would then have to pronounce on.
Take the case of someone who, in the form of an idea, feels strongly about the inadequacy of the existing Constitutional scheme of things and would like drastic amendments to the structure of the Constitution, which would even affect its “basic structure”.
This is not a new issue and the Supreme Court has already pronounced on it, but this certainly cannot be the end of the matter.
A nation, being a living entity in that it is continually evolving just like the people, must also have a flexible Constitutional structure which adequately reflects (and also perhaps guides) the changes. Therefore, when a citizen brings the issue to the notice of the public, either in written form or by the spoken word, what should the court’s stand on the matter be?
The moot point here is: Is there a constituency in the country which would like an “unfettered” right to express ideas whatever they may be? In plainspeak, are there people who would like to place the right to say whatever they would like to say on the highest pedestal, irrespective of whether what they say could have an ugly, albeit unintended, impact on others?
Since ideas are the stuff of life — and progress — their generation should be encouraged as a matter of State policy, the State, of course, having no right whatever in designating an idea right or wrong, good or bad.
But since ideas can change the world, they can also be powerful enough to hurt sections of society, and it is here that the legal guardians of the State will have to step in and provide a balance. This job of providing a “balance” will be termed as a regressive attribute of the judiciary, because it will be interpreted as interfering with the free flow of ideas.
But then, if such interference is required to maintain peace and harmony in society, to what extent can such an act be described as being regressive?
Clearly, the thinking brigade has to be more circumspect these days than earlier in proposing provocative social ideas. This may be put down to a “deterioration” in social conditions, but then this is a fact of life that one faces.