How Must We Speak?
“Without freedom of thought, there can be no such thing as wisdom- and no such thing as public liberty without freedom of speech.” Benjamin Franklin, USA.
Freedom of speech and expression is the most basic of all freedoms granted to the citizens of India. This provision in our constitution of course was inspired by Western ideology. The founding fathers of the United States of America established their nation by setting forth many Biblical principles in her constitution, like the Bill of Rights. In it, the first amendment essentially gives the freedom of speech, religion, press, assembly, etc. However, by declaring these freedoms, the founding fathers never meant to endorse the rights of those who would do ‘wicked’ deeds. The laws of society should impose penalties on evil perversions of true freedom. Thus, true freedom must have boundaries and penalties must be imposed upon those who violate them. Often, however, this freedom is misused.
With recent spates of intolerance to views and ideas expressed both in print and electronic media, the interpretations of ‘Freedom to Speech and Expression’ continue to unravel. Over the past few months in the JNU (Delhi) campus, the Democratic Students Union (DSU) organized a debate to air their concerns and ideas about the issues of Kashmir. However, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidhyarthi Parishad (ABVP) members fearing that the debate would be “harmful for campus atmosphere”, wrote to the administration of JNU to withdraw the permission to organize the same. DSU decided to go ahead with the debate, and the rest is history. It resulted in what was termed by the media and later by the political parties as “anti-national slogans” being raised, fuelling an unhealthy discourse which resulted in heavy casualties and sedition charges levelled on many students, making international headlines.
Was it antinational to organize an open debate and have free discussions? Clearly not. What however is troubling is the raising of antinational slogans such as “our fight will continue until India is destroyed”, and the like, by angry students. In a democracy, everyone has the freedom of expression and undoubtedly, freedom of speech and expression entails responsibilities and consequences. While condemning the misuse of freedom of speech, I suggest that neutral platforms are created for constructive debates where all voices could be placed, heard, and responded or condemned.
In Nagaland too, there have been many cries for the voices of the people to be heard. The recent standoff between the Government of Nagaland and the people’s voice spearheaded by the Joint Coordination Committee (JCC) and Naga Tribes Action Committee (NTAC) may be a case in point. The issue was nonviolent protest against the 33% reservation for women in the Urban Local Bodies (ULB) elections, which later took an ugly turn leading to rampant destruction of government property and loss of three precious lives. What could have been achieved with peaceful dialogue, negotiation, and restraint on the blatant exercise of the freedom of speech was wrought with violence. Should every issue that concerns the citizens be then settled with bloodshed and violence? Let us learn from the lives of our great heroes of humanity like Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, and Nelson Mandela who through nonviolent approaches fought for just causes and brought down oppressive governments and ushered in peace to troubled worlds.
Mahatma Gandhi was the greatest exponent of the doctrine of ahimsa or non-violence. His actions were brilliant examples of the proper usage of the Right to Freedom and Expression. Gandhi, in 1931 said that, “I will not purchase my country’s freedom at the cost of non-violence...”. We must remember that Gandhi applied his method of non-violent resistance not only against foreign rule, but against social evils such as racial discrimination and untouchability as well, thereby winning the respect and support of the entire world. Not so long ago, Anna Hazare, a follower of Gandhi, used his freedom of speech in a nonviolent protest to bring about the passage of Jan Lokpal and the Lokayukta Bill, both of which ensures the citizens of timely and just investigations of corruption cases.
In recent times too, the wise use of freedom of speech and expression bringing about a positive change is that of the Jallikattu protests in Tamil Nadu. The leaderless mass movement largely conducted in a peaceful manner across Tamil Nadu by over 4 lakhs protestors led the Supreme Court to lift the ban imposed on the traditional bull-taming sport called jallikattu. Let this be an example for us that the voice of the people raised in a non-violent and peaceful manner has the power still to bring about the necessary changes in the society.
Thus, while it is true that speech is a God given faculty and the constitution also ensures our freedom to practice free speech, we should do so with care. It is my strong belief that what cannot be achieved with bloodshed and violence can be achieved by wise usage of freedom of speech and expression in a peaceful and nonviolent manner. In conclusion, I quote from the Bible: Matthew 12:36 - “I tell you, on the day of judgement people will give account for every careless word they speak”. I therefore encourage everyone to exercise your freedom of speech and expression to build others up; through encouragement and praise, appreciation, love, patience, kind and gentle words, constructive criticism, and to speak the truth with grace.