GOVERNMENT ASSAULT ON FREEDOM OF SPEECH IN INDIA

By Moksha Grover

The year 2021 has shown catastrophic effects on India so far. The country has witnessed a devastating second wave of covid-19 which continues to rage on with the official death toll being over 3,50,000[1]. Hospitals in India run out of beds and medical oxygen because of the country’s paralyzed healthcare infrastructure. But the most important point to be noted here is that India increased its oxygen exports by 734 percent in January 2021, and exported around 193 million doses of vaccines[2]. Justifying the export to other countries, union health minister Harsh Vardhan claimed that the country was in a virus endgame. However, at the end of April 24, the total confirmed cases of coronavirus stood beyond 16 million with less than 2 percent of the population fully vaccinated[3].  When the people started questioning the government, the government in response reportedly directed Twitter and other social media platforms to remove over 100 posts and URLs criticizing India’s handling of its second nationwide COVID-19 wave[4].

It forced social media companies, especially Twitter, to stifle expression, and if the companies don’t obey they face the threat of punishment from the government. This is one example of the recent case of assault followed by the Indian government in relation to the freedom of speech in India.

IMPORTANCE OF FREEDOM OF SPEECH AND EXPRESSION

Freedom of speech and expression as regarded by Mahatma Gandhi

“the two lungs that are absolutely necessary for a man to breathe the oxygen of liberty”. Article 19 of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948, states that “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”[5]

The Indian Constitution provides for the right to freedom of speech and expression under Article 19(1)(a).[6] This right can be restricted on the basis of grounds provided in Article 19(2), which are: in the interests of sovereignty and integrity of India, security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency or morality or in relation to contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offense [7]. The right to articulate opinions without fear of retaliation, censorship, or punishment carries significance in the life of every human being, thus making the right to expression important for all human beings. Freedom of speech is an important right because a person’s voice is sometimes all that person has. To take away a person’s thoughts and opinions is to strip their life away.

THE CRISIS OF FREE SPEECH                        

   In the last few months alone, Delhi Police has made international headlines for visiting Twitter’s India offices to “routinely” investigate its policies on tagging content as manipulated media. The Union Government has strongly instructed Twitter to remove all the tweets critical of Prime Minister Narendra covid response. Many activists have been arrested by the government for mobilizing support for the farmers’ protests. Multiple FIRs have been filed against journalists for reporting on Covid deaths and oxygen shortages. Last year, two Malayalam news channels were suspended for 48 hours by the Union Ministry of Information and Broadcasting for reporting the Delhi riots. This year, a comedian also got arrested and spent the whole of January in prison for the jokes he never cracked. The latest illustration of the assault on free speech is the government’s response to protests against the new farm laws. Instead of allowing peaceful assembly, the government in Delhi started building barriers on protest sides with nail beds or concrete walls. They blocked the protests. Many protesters were arrested. Violence erupted on many occasions and the farmers traveling to Delhi were placed under house arrest in Agra to cut at the root of the protest. Also Recently, three FIRs have been filed against union minister Narayan Rane for his remarks against Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray while giving a speech in Raigad district on Monday. His support in Mumbai also clashed and two of his supporters and two policemen were injured in the clash. Furthermore, in an English weekly, Organizer, was said to be publishing communal writings and was ordered by the Chief Commissioner of Delhi to submit all materials for prior censorship There are numerous other cases that depict the crisis of free speech in India.

IS THE ASSAULT FOLLOWED BY THE GOVERNMENT TENABLE?

The failure of the government to control the covid-19 cases in India and handle the pandemic has resulted in us bearing the worst covid surge in the world. However, instead of being accountable for its lapses and listening to its citizens, the government is prohibiting people from even talking about it. It is trying to suppress the voices of all the people who have been affected by the wrong decisions of the government. Such attacks on free speech end in the tipping away of balance from constitutional freedom; of late, the higher judiciary seems to be complicit in this absurd process[8]. One must realize that liberty once lost is lost forever and censorship is undoubtedly against the very foundation of a free society.

THE TWO MAJOR FREE SPEECH CHALLENGES FACED BY THE WORLD

There are mainly two major free speech challenges faced by the world, Today. In most developing countries like ours, the legal system isn’t strong enough to guarantee freedom of speech and needs to be revised. In other developed countries like the U.S free speech is increasingly being mixed up with absolute speech. In developed countries, the fight for freedom of speech has shifted to normalizing hate speech’s and to

 Silence minorities. As said, words always have consequences. One such example was a surge in anti-Muslim attacks in the UK after Prime Minister Boris Johnson called women in burqas “bank robbers”, and similar incidents happened everywhere[9]. In India, the government keeps suppressing its critics and agrees to give a free pass to all those who abide by its values. Hate speeches are allowed to be shown on national television considering, that these hate speeches are directed toward minority communities. Even by the American standard of “imminent lawless action”, chanting “Desh ke gaddaro ko, goli maaro saalo ko” at rallies would be considered wrong, and yet it seems to be acceptable here[10].

PROTECTING AND PROMOTING FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION

Social Media has given a voice to almost everyone. But the digital world, like our real world, is not a level-playing field and those with power quickly learned how to use it to their advantage. In India, along with direct suppression, indirect suppression is also being followed through the way of troll armies that abuse people and flooding tactics (fake news, propaganda bots, paid commentators) that drown out real voices. Sticks and stones have always broken bones but words hurt twice as much. Social Media companies need to develop good terms and conditions to tackle all the misinformation and hate speeches. Online platforms should make it harder for people to share misinformation. Since women and children are mostly targeted online, companies should ensure to make their platforms a space to share ideas and not to harass people by employing sufficient moderators. We should keep fighting for the right to expression in India but at the same time keep in mind that our right to express opinions should not stifle the voices of other people or put them in danger.


[1] Jacob Mchangama and Raghav Mendiratta, ‘Supporting free speech, but not a criticism of government’, The Indian Express (June 25,2021) <https://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/supporting-free-speech-but-not-criticism-of-government-7376023/> accessed 26th August 2021

[2] MD Tasnimul Hassan,’ Latest salvo in the crisis of free speech in India’, The Leaflet ( 27th April 2021) < https://www.theleaflet.in/latest-salvo-in-the-crisis-of-free-speech-in-india/&gt; accessed 26th August 2021.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Sourabh Yadav, ‘Right to free speech is democracy’s precious gift, but not when it stifles others’ voices’, The Print (December 2,2021) < https://theprint.in/campus-voice/right-to-free-speech-is-democracys-precious-gift-but-not-when-it-stifles-others-voices/555715/> accessed 26th August,2021

[10] Ibid.