Give the freedom back – “The freedom of speech”

parliament-pic The first hallmark of any successful democracy is the right of every citizen to express oneself freely. Among all rights, the “Freedom of Speech” stands at the highest altar. Article 19 of the Constitution guarantees it but still, somehow this right has been ruthlessly and systematically curtailed. On the 60th Independence Day of India, let’s evaluate where this right got lost over the years.

Let’s first understand what this constitution right of freedom of speech means. It is not just a guaranteed right to speak but also the assurance that no adverse, legal or illegal action would be taken against a person for speaking up his mind. It becomes the constitutional duty of the government to protect its citizens from any action/fallout resulting from his/her fair opinions. Of course there are some basic proviso’s too which restrain the free-speech right to the perimeter that it mustn’t be used to spread communal disharmony, promote national disintegration and/or be libellous. The proviso begins and ends here.

On the outside, it might look like that the right to speak one’s mind freely exists, but the moment one gets deeper into the details, the realities surface.

We begin our evaluation at the highest level; from the parliament. The premise is that, if there is no freedom of speech there; it is nowhere. So the first question is; “Can our members of the Parliament (Representing over a billion people) speak-up and express themselves freely and fearlessly in the parliament?” The unfortunate answer is; “Not at all.”

There are too many disincentives and repercussions for our M.P’s (And the Legislative Assembly members [MLA]) to air their true opinion and views in the parliament or the assembly. The fist one is the risk of loosing their membership. The “Fifty-Second Amendment” and the “Tenth Schedule” inserted on Feburary 15, 1985 in our constitution mercilessly restricted this right. This amendment implies that if a parliamentarian (Or MLA) speaks/votes against any policy adopted by his party, he looses the membership of the parliament. This means that even the free vote in the parliament is surrendered to a person (Leader of his/her political party) who may or may not be a parliamentarian (Or member of the assembly) himself/herself. This also means that the whole parliament is allowed to be ruled by a handful of people (Say about 5 or 6) and they are the one who decides what a MP or MLA will speak and how he/she will vote on any important issue.

This reduces the MP’s/MLA’s to the level of mere marionettes in the hand of their political masters. They are forced to either keep mum or to speak against their own conscience. The right to free speech actually does not exist with them. How many times have you seen the ruling party MP’s or MLA’s speaking factually on the wrongdoings of the government or making arguments to that effect. Never!

Besides the basic legal provisions, airing once views outside the parliament may even have stricter consequences for a member who listens to his inner voice and speaks-up; some of the associated costs are expulsion from the party, disciplinary actions and public bashing in many different varieties and flavours. There is no forum for an effective redress on such unjustified and illegal actions anywhere in the country and such a politician faces the risk of becoming a political pariah.

The irony of the whole issue is that prior to the 52nd amendment, the word political party finds no mention in the constitution or any other law including the “Representation of People Act 1951.” In technical sense, it finds no mention even on date. There is just one section, “29A” of “Representation of People Act 1951” which was inserted in 1989 (June 15, 1989), mentioning about “Political parties” and that too in a very loose sense.

The intention of the constitution makers was absolutely clear so as to ensure protection of this basic right of speech. The intent was that each member may represent himself and his constituency in the parliament and no one else. The election of the Prime Minister and Chief Minister was supposed to be conducted in the parliament/assembly with free voting and not by the illegally constituted “High Commands.” Somehow over the time we have lost this vision of the constitutional makers and for selfish interests’ deteriorated the system to great depths. In the process the parliament (And the people it represents) has lost the right to free and fearless speech.

The result is that there is no more protection for speaking one’s mind. If you are a politician, you can not only loose your membership of the house but also the basic membership of your party. If you are an executive officer (IAS, etc.) you risk being wasted-out and being sent to an insignificant post in some insignificant place where your talent would never be used. If you are a social worker, you risk loosing the much required official cooperation and above it you can be sure of victimization and adverse actions from time to time. If you are any other employee, repercussions can vary from poor remarks on your annual report (ACR) to loosing your job. If you are a journalist either your article will find no place (The media is after all a profit making commercial enterprise [And not a philanthropist entity] which must keep those in power happy) or very soon your job responsibilities will change. And so on and on… … consequentially we have reached a point that every child now has a very clear tacit understanding of what he or she should speak and what must be left unsaid.

As a role reversal, the intention of the speaker is no more accorded any significance at all; the intention and opinion of the recipient (Or the affected person) has become of prime importance and it’s this person who can act on his whims and fancies with no fear of any backlash. Free voice can be switched-off anytime using any of the hundreds of tools available. Of course you need to be powerful enough for gagging a throat. So why are you surprised when no one raises one’s voice against crime, corruption, nepotism, unfair social practices, witch hunting, etc? Everyone knows (And constantly learn from observation) that the price to pay for speaking-up is often too high as quite often there will be someone powerful enough who will get offended by one’s free-speech, so better to keep mum and find a short cut. After 60 years of freedom, this is the extent of “Free speech” and we don’t even realize that this is also one of the originating seeds of corruption, anarchy and terrorism.

Even under an alien rule, Lokmanya Bal Gangadhar Tilak had taken the freedom of speech for-granted while stating that “Swaraj (Self rule) is my birthright, and I shall have it!” Can we take such a liberty today?

Can we ever restore the freedom of speech again?

The only apparent way to get it back is by speaking up.

Hemant Goswami


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