Despite Constitutional guarantees, the idea of freedom expression has often come under attack on several fronts.

Freedom of thought and expression was an idea the Republic embraced in its ringing preamble to the Constitution and indexed as Article 19 (1) of that document. The Supreme Court of India has, in turn, reiterated, defended and breathed new life into the idea through innumerable verdicts. But between the declaration/defence of the idea and its delineation, there often fell a shadow. That's what makes the story of freedom of expression in post-Constitution India so compelling.

The British, as good imperialists, had always realised the importance of the press. Historian Chandrika Kaul, in her book Reporting The Raj cites Lord Curzon as having termed journalists friendly to the colonial enterprise as “live rails”, connecting the outskirts of the Empire with its heart. But if the Raj used the media to consolidate its hold on India and influence world opinion, it's equally true that India's independence struggle was waged as much on the inked sheets of nationalist newspapers as on the paved streets of Bombay and Lahore.

In these 60 years of the Republic, the media scene has undergone a sea change.

Media boom

The literacy level, which had stood at 18.33 per cent in 1951 grew to 66 per cent by 2001. In 1950, there were six radio stations and 214 newspapers, 12 per cent of which were in English. By 2005, there were some 1,834 dailies, with the Hindi and regional language newspapers establishing an emphatic presence in the world's second largest newspaper market in the world. There are, in addition, over 500 private television channels, some 70 private FM stations, and an ever-burgeoning number of Internet users, 81,000,000 at the last count.

These figures would suggest that freedom of expression has struck deep roots in India but that may be too quick a reading. For one, it is all very well to take pride in having the constitutional guarantee of freedom of expression, but what does it mean in a country where a third of the population is still illiterate? Who do the Indian media speak for? How is freedom of expression to reach the last person in a country divided by language, caste, class, region? Finally, what is the equation between the political elite and the right of the citizen's freedom of expression? Uncomfortable questions that have no easy answers.

Certainly the Indian State's negotiations with the right to freedom of expression have been uneasy. The first amendment to the Constitution — the Nehru government's response to the Supreme Court striking down of the Bihar Land Reform Act, 1950 — modified Article 19 (1) by introducing “reasonable restrictions on the exercise of the right”. In Parliament, Prime Minister Nehru, who prided himself on his liberal outlook, tried to tackle the vexed issue of contending rights, “We have to remember that the nation must be free … if national freedom is imperilled or individual freedom is imperilled what good do other freedoms do?” Far less persuasive was his daughter, Indira Gandhi, when she invoked the Defence of India Act to “maintain law and order” during the 21-month Emergency of 1975, under which, “all printers, publishers and editors of newspapers, periodicals, pamphlets and other documents” should submit for scrutiny all material before it saw the light of day.

While it is easy to perceive the Emergency as the low point in the exercise of the freedom of expression, there have been many attempts before it and since, where the State — always invoking a higher principle — has attempted to circumscribe it. There was the Defamation Bill, introduced by the Rajiv Gandhi government, and the Prevention of Terrorism Act, passed under Atal Bihari Vajpayee's rule, which contained provisions that directly targeted media freedom.

Many-pronged attack

But undermining media and cultural freedom has been attempted, not just by an over-anxious State, but by politically inspired vigilante groups — the hounding of India's most celebrated artist M.F. Husain and routine attacks on media houses are recent instances — as well as contempt-happy courts and legislatures. On occasion, the media too have discredited themselves by misusing and abusing the unique powers given to them of interpreting contemporary reality for the ordinary citizen.

Fortunately, there have also been many sterling attempts to preserve this right against great odds. Over these last 60 years, there have been innumerable and eloquent court verdicts celebrating it, starting with Romesh Thapar vs State of Madras of 1950. The most significant move, however, to foster and extend the freedom of expression was initiated not as much by the courts as much as by civil society. The Right to Information Act 2005 logically complements Article 19 (1) a. As Aruna Roy, whose organisation, the MKSS, had spearheaded the legislation, once pointed out in an interview I did with her: “If you can have access to information and are not be allowed to express it, it is of no use to anyone. Conversely, if you can express yourself but have no access to information, what good is it?”

Six decades is a long enough period to test the power of an idea against the noisy backdrop of contemporary India. Freedom of expression has allowed us, the children of the Republic, to imagine new forms of political democracy, pluralism and personal empowerment. But it will forever be an incomplete freedom that needs to be defended every passing day.

The writer is Director, Women's Feature Service.