Thursday , 22 February 2018

States must preserve freedom of expression

Karan Thapar

I wonder if the six state governments (all BJP ones) that decided to ban ‘Padmaavat’ are feeling chastened after the Supreme Court struck down their decisions. They had either announced or proposed a total ban. The Supreme Court deemed this unconstitutional and ordered them to show the film. The Court also warned any other state government from attempting a ban. This amounts to a stinging rebuff and a political embarrassment.

The state governments argued that showing the film would lead to a disturbed law and order situation which they would be unable to control. Rather than risk tension and violence they opted to ban the film. This argument was not acceptable because it turns on its head the actual duty and raison d’etre of the state.

Under our constitution, freedom of expression is paramount and the duty of the state is to defend this right whilst protecting the citizenry against threats to law and order. In pleading their inability to defend freedom of expression and protect the citizenry, the state governments were abnegating their primary function. The truth is that if they cannot fulfil what they are there to do they should, in fact, resign. In ordering the film be shown and protection provided, the Court may not have threatened dismissal but it certainly reminded the governments they were in breach of their constitutional duty.

What these state governments forgot is that because something causes offence is not a reason to ban it. After all, what is freedom of speech if it doesn’t include the right to offend? Indeed, it’s the duty of governments to protect free speech against the villainy or violence of those who make a habit of taking offence. Governments are elected to uphold democratic values, not buckle under and give in.

Sadly, it still doesn’t follow that ‘Padmaavat’ will be screened without violence. The Karni Sena is bound to resort to this to intimidate both distributors and viewers. In fact, it’s likely that some or many distributors may themselves choose not to screen the film for fear of what might happen to their cinema halls. Many viewers could stay away as well.

In fact, what the state governments have ensured, by their pusillanimity and their willingness to justify unconstitutional demands, is to embolden such forces as the Karni Sena. A stronger initial response could have checked them. But that was not to be.

I accept enforcing law and order in the face of widespread dissent or protest is not easy in India. I also accept that Congress governments have rarely been better champions of our freedoms. After all, Rajiv Gandhi was the prime minister who chose to ban Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses before the book even reached Indian shores! And, certainly, Amarinder Singh’s initial equivocation on ‘Padmaavat’ is reminiscent of the depressing stand of BJP state governments. But all this only points to a bigger problem. Our politicians are more scared of the challenges they face and less committed to the rights and liberties they’re elected to uphold.

So, thank God for the Supreme Court. For all its imperfections and contradictions, it has, in this instance, pronounced in support of the most fundamental right in a democracy – free speech. Alas, the initial response of governments in Rajasthan, Haryana and Madhya Pradesh is not reassuring. One says it will seek a review whilst another has questioned the Supreme Court itself. We now need the top court to stamp down this fledgling defiance. I trust it will and swiftly.

(HT Media)


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