Perspective – The Politics of Free Speech

The suppression of free speech is an exercise of political power through competitive intolerance. Free speech must find its political feet in order to prevent this.

In February 2014, Penguin India withdrew all copies of Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus as part of an out-of-court settlement with an organisation that had contended that the book hurt religious sentiments (and was culpable under many sections of the Indian Penal Code).

Public debate revolved around two interconnected issues: first, the suppression of free speech through the use of illiberal statues and second, to what extent is the tendency to take offence driven by religion.

While these are interesting and important issues, they are tangential to the main issue: the phenomenon of competitive intolerance in contemporary India is almost always an exercise of political power. This goes beyond preventing people from reading a book or watching a film. This exercise of political power transcends any intellectual or philosophical considerations.

The real question then is, what kind of politics or which politicians will become more powerful by not suppressing books & movies? In a democracy, unless those who care for free speech rally politically, they will find their interests compromised. Free speech and the yearning for a more liberal society are yet to attain a critical political mass among India’s population, unlike corruption, which managed to do so in 2010-11. The judiciary ought to have defended free speech. But judges are creations of the times and are influenced by prevailing narratives.

Democracy implies the will of the majority should prevail. A republic stands for rule-of-law and the protection of individual liberty against the tyranny of the majority. A democratic republic is stable and harmonious when the will of the majority supports the upholding of individual liberty, and is unstable and rancourous otherwise.

How can we achieve stability and harmony? Through politics. If there is no political constituency for free speech and individual liberty then democracy will express support for these values weakly, however much they are enshrined in the republic’s statutes. This underlines the need for those concerned about individual liberty to make their demands political.

Free speech must find its political feet. Almost four decades after the emergency, we are still some distance away from it.