Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of India T.S. Thakur is known among his peers for his integrity and his determination to ensure justice. Both qualities will be needed if he is to ensure that the immense power of the institution he heads gets used to ensure that the freedoms given to the citizens of what is widely regarded to be a democracy cease to be rolled back or diluted. This is a context where an individual was thrown into prison simply for making a few joking references to a “baba” (otherwise known as an individual regarded as divine by himself and by his followers). Enraged at the slight on the presumably godly personage, a follower filed a complaint before the Haryana police demanding that the humorist be prosecuted. Some years ago, a handbag containing the manuscript of several poems and belonging to this columnist’s wife was stolen near an office block in Gurgaon. The thieves threw some currency notes near the car in which the handbag had been placed, thereby motivating the driver into opening the door and scrambling about on all fours in an effort to retrieve the Rs 10 notes strewn about. During that period, the thieves made off with the handbag. It was expected that the gentlemen who made off with it would be located, as they were regulars at the location and therefore apparently known to the occupants of a police vehicle parked a few feet from the vehicle from which the bag was stolen. However, the police were simply not interested in the matter.
Given such a record, it would have been expected that the boys in uniform would not have allowed a complaint about a joke to disturb their afternoon nap, but in an uncharacteristic display of efficiency, the Haryana police hauled in the offending jokester and brought him before a magistrate, who lost little time in depriving him of his liberty for a period of two weeks. Quite possibly, such dispatch on the part of the police was owing to the pull effect of the “divine” gifts of the baba in question. However, does a country where a harmless joke gets met with imprisonment merit being called a democracy? In India, the colonial system of laws and administration has resulted in a situation where it is as easy as in North Korea or Saudi Arabia to deprive an individual of his or her liberty, a fact once again exemplified by this arrest. The follower of the baba was “hurt” at the less than adulatory references to his hero, and sent the offender to jail. This columnist has been hurt by the ease with which the liberty of a citizen of India was taken away as a result of the complaint filed by this baba-follower. Now would the Haryana police arrest the complainant in the “case of the mocked baba” because of the hurt he has caused to all those who believe in freedom of speech and other democratic rights of the citizen?
In China as in Saudi Arabia, there are individuals above negative comment. Should a mocking cartoon get printed about President Xi Jinping or King Salman, those responsible are unlikely to have an untroubled existence for a considerable period of time thereafter. However, unlike India, neither country advertises itself as a democracy. From the banning of a book (Rama Retold) by satirist Aubrey Menen in the 1950s to this country being the first to ban Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses in the 1980s, a regressive and corruption-fuelling colonial system has repeatedly been used to emasculate freedom of speech to a level far below that found in other major democracies.
In such a situation, the Supreme Court of India needs to assume the responsibility of ensuring that the people of India enjoy freedoms that are the birthright of those born in a democracy. Of course, there have been periods in the past when even life was not regarded as a “fundamental” right. Recently, when a High Court verdict boldly underlined the regressive nature of Section 377, and in effect deemed it illegal, the Supreme Court gladdened admirers of Victorian moral codes by striking down the HC verdict. A bit earlier, in 2011, the court affirmed that Rs 100 crore was fair recompense to be paid to a former judge, because a news channel had for a few seconds shown his countenance rather than that of another judge who was being impeached for graft. It was lucky for the channel that it had not aired the wrong image for an hour, as in that case, the penalty may have exceeded Rs 1,000 crore. Needless to say, the verdict has become a Damocles Sword on the media, scaring it away from exposes for fear of the evidence in its possession being not comprehensive enough in an age of opaque governance to satisfy courts in a country where “criminal defamation” is still legal.
Free speech can be annoying and sometimes troubling. However, it is part of the price paid by individual citizens for belonging to a democracy. In the Knowledge Era, an atmosphere of freedom is crucial for innovation and creative expression.
India can lead the globe in the creative arts, and in the innovative genius that creates a tech giant. But for that to happen, the unreasonable use of the “reasonable restriction” clause concerning freedom of speech — put there by “Father of Democracy” Jawaharlal Nehru to dilute freedoms — needs to be curbed. This is best accomplished by the Supreme Court of India. Over to you, Mr Chief Justice.