There is a need to debate freedom of expression, linking it to sedition is unnecessary
An eminent socialist leader and thinker Dr Ram Manohar Lohia has written, “free speech is essential for each and every citizen. In democracy each individual should be able to speak his mind with complete freedom –there should not be any fear, intimidation or hurdle.” At the same time, while negating equating individual freedom with unrestricted freedom he said, “Individual freedom should not damage the fundamentals of social order. Individual freedom does not mean freedom to encroach liberty of others. Self-restraint is the protective shield of individual freedom. It is life and security of the same.” In this perspective there is a need for meaningful debate on freedom of expression. Linking expression to seditious crime is all the more serious and controversial issue. The Supreme Court has also said that mere sloganeering cannot be considered as sedition. Instigating violence in society with the aim of disintegrating the nation is certainly a punishable crime. Therefore; actions against Maoists who are trying to create dissent against the nation with illegal arms and violent means in the remote rural or tribal areas and extremists active in Jammu & Kashmir and the North-east Bharat can be justified as they instigate violence through their words and actions. Individuals supporting such organisations or individuals in the urban centres also cannot be spared as they also tacitly support the incitement to violence. Similarly, we cannot consider people instigating religious violence through inflammatory speech or pamphlets as innocent. Government and courts should give similar treatment to the Maoists and communalists.
Recently, there was a lot of criticism against media in this discourse. Though there is certain overstepping by media, many of the criticisms are exaggerated. We have to understand that media just represents the sentiments within the society. If those sentiments are not properly channelised then they can take provocative violent route. In this process, some people associated with politics and media start considering themselves as sole saviours of nation. This is nothing but moral egoism. They forget that moral standards are based on collectivism and not on individualism. As article 19 (1) has the provision for freedom of expression, 19 (2) imposes certain limitations on the same which includes interests of the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the State, public order, decency or morality, contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence etc.
In 1969, Indian Press Council had advised for self regulation while giving guiding principles on reporting the matters related to religious violence to avoid exaggeration and further incitement. In 1991 also, Press Council and editors’ guild had categorically denounced any writing inciting religious violence as misuse of freedom of expression. But expression of thoughts based on facts for the goal of social and political awakening is essential for democracy.
The senior leader of BJP, Shri Lal Krishna Advani in his diary cum book on Emergency, A Prisoner's Scrap- Book says, “For a democrat, criticism is a pre-condition of democracy while for a fascist any criticism is a danger for security of his party or nation. He considers Opposition as an enemy and unfit to enjoy any political freedom. He expects Opposition to blindly toe his line.”
Now the time has changed. Most of the ruling parties have changed their perspective on freedom and expression. After the extension of media and emergence of social media, there is a need for serious debate and discussion on right to freedom of expression and sedition. Different states are ruled by different parties now. Everyone wants to interpret law according to his own convenience. It is better that on such sensitive issues, an open and candid discussion takes place at the level of parliament and the Supreme Court and present laws are amended accordingly. Along with rights, even duties should be mentioned categorically. Couple of years ago, one of the prominent editors B G Verghese had also mentioned about new code of conduct to curb anarchy and unrestrained behaviour of media.
Alok Mehta (The Writer is a former editor of NaiDunia and presently Chief Editor of Outlook)