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Updated: February 14, 2013 00:11 IST

The rising menace of intolerance

Soli J. Sorabjee
Comment (27)   ·   print   ·   T  T  

Freedom of expression will continue to remain under siege unless all groups accept that people can have different opinions and beliefs in a free country

“Our tradition teaches tolerance; our philosophy preaches tolerance; our Constitution practises tolerance; let us not dilute it.” These stirring sentiments were expressed by Justice Chinnappa Reddy in a Supreme Court judgment pronounced in August 1986 which invalidated expulsion from school of students belonging to Jehova’s Witness faith. Regrettably, over the years, tolerance has been replaced by the rising menace of intolerance which strikes at various fields of human endeavour and creativity: writings, music, drama, paintings and movies.

Intolerance stems from an invincible assumption of the infallibility of one’s beliefs and a dogmatic conviction about their rightness. An intolerant society cannot tolerate expression of ideas and views which challenge its current doctrines and conventional wisdom. Consequently, unconventional and heterodox thoughts and views have to be suppressed. That is the prime motivation for censorship.

Extent of dissent

One criterion to determine whether a country is truly democratic is the extent of dissent permitted. A liberal democracy is one in which all groups in the country accept the fact that in a free country, people can have different opinions and beliefs and shall have equal rights in voicing them without fear of legal penalties or social sanctions. Right to dissent and tolerance of dissent are sine qua non of a liberal democratic society.

Today we have reached a stage where expression of a different point of view is viewed with resentment and hostility and there are vociferous demands for bans. The banning itch has become infectious. Sikhs are offended by certain words in the title of a movie; Christians want the movie, The Da Vinci Code, banned because they find some portions hurtful. The ban was struck down by the Andhra Pradesh High Court. No one dare write an authentic and critical biography of a revered religious or political leader. The American author James Laine who wrote a biography of Shivaji in which there were unpalatable remarks about Shivaji was sought to be prosecuted which was quashed by the Supreme Court. Worse, the prestigious Bhandarkar Institute at Pune where Laine had done some research was vandalised. That was mobocracy in action. The exhibition of M.F. Husain’s paintings was stopped by intimidation followed by vandalism of the premises. The exhibition The Naked and the Nude at the Art Gallery in Delhi is threatened with dire consequences because it is considered obscene by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad women’s wing. The musical performance by a teenage girl rock band in Kashmir was coerced into silence because the music was termed un-Islamic by a popular religious leader. There are media reports that Mani Ratnam’s latest movie Kadal has come under fire on account of Christian ire that it has ‘hurt’ the feelings of the community. One wonders whether we are hell bent on emulating the Taliban.

Fortunately, our Supreme Court has been a valiant defender of freedom of expression. The well known actor Khushboo faced several criminal prosecutions on account of her remarks on premarital sex and its prevalence in metropolitan cities which were considered to be against the dignity of Tamil women and ruined the culture and morality of the people of Tamil Nadu. The Supreme Court quashed the criminal proceedings on the ground that “under our constitutional scheme different views are allowed to be expressed by the proponents and opponents. … Morality and criminality are far from being coextensive. An expression of opinion in favour of non-dogmatic and non-conventional morality has to be tolerated and the same cannot be a ground to penalise the author.”

The movie, Bandit Queen, was banned on the ground of obscenity because of the very brief scene of frontal nudity of the bandit Phoolan Devi in the movie. The Supreme Court struck down the ban and ruled that nakedness is not per se obscene. The Court emphasised that the Censor Tribunal which is a multi-member body comprised of persons who gauge public reactions to films had approved exhibition of the movie. This aspect was also highlighted by the Supreme Court in its judgment in T. Kannan.

Exhibition of movies is included in the fundamental right of freedom of expression guaranteed by the Constitution. One of the reasons frequently assigned for imposing a ban is that it hurts the sentiments of a certain section of people in society. ‘Hurt feelings’ is a slippery slope for banning expression. Any book or movie or play which criticises certain practices and advocates reforms will ‘hurt’ the sentiments of the status-quoists. For example, the abolition of Sati or the abolition of certain superstitious practices in the name of religion. Criticism should not be equated with causing offence. In the context of hurt feelings, the Supreme Court has repeatedly laid down that the standard to be applied for judging the film should be that of an ordinary man of common sense and prudence and not that of “hypersensitive” persons who sense offence in every scene or perceive hurt in every statement. The right method is to vigorously refute the criticism by rebutting its reasoning and data on which its conclusions are based.

Another ground for imposing a ban is the bogey about apprehension of breach of law and order and outbreak of violence in view of threats by certain groups about the exhibition of the movie. As far back as November 2000, the Supreme Court in KM Shankarappa’s case categorically ruled that “once an expert body has considered the impact of the film on the public and has cleared the film, it is no excuse to say that there may be a law and order situation. … In such a case, the clear duty of the government is to ensure that law and order is maintained by taking appropriate actions against persons who choose to breach the law.”

The same bogey of breach of law and order and violence was raised by the State of Tamil Nadu regarding exhibition of the movie, Ore Oru Gramathile. The Supreme Court firmly rejected the State’s plea in its decision in Rangarajan in March 1989 in these words: “Freedom of expression cannot be suppressed on account of threat of demonstration and processions or threats of violence. That would tantamount to negation of the rule of law and a surrender to blackmail and intimidation.” The Court reiterated that “it is the duty of the State to protect freedom of expression. The State cannot plead its inability to handle the hostile audience problem. It is its obligatory duty to prevent it and protect the freedom of expression.” It is noteworthy that the Supreme Court endorsed the celebrated dictum of the European Court of Human Rights that freedom of expression guarantees “not only views that are generally received but also those that offend, shock or disturb the State or any sector of the population. Such are the demands of that pluralism, tolerance and broadmindedness without which there is no democratic society.”

During the hearing of the writ petition regarding the movie Dam999, certain observations were made orally off the cuff by the Supreme Court about law and order problems that may arise because of the exhibition of a movie. The writ petition was in fact dismissed as infructuous because the period of the ban had expired. There is no mention or discussion of the decision in Rangarajan at all in the operative part of the Supreme Court order. The salutary principle laid down in the Rangarajan decision has been approved in three subsequent decisions of the Supreme Court. It firmly holds the field and has not been diluted at all.

In contravention of the law

Banning of the movie Vishwaroopam by the State of Tamil Nadu was clearly in contravention of the law laid down by our Supreme Court. The sad part is that Kamal Haasan, producer of the movie, agreed to carry out cuts in the movie as demanded by certain Muslim groups. It was not a settlement but surrender by Mr. Haasan albeit for pragmatic reasons. However it lays down a bad precedent because it concedes to certain intolerant groups demanding a ban, a veto or appellate power over the decision of an expert body like the Censor Board.

Our Constitution prescribes certain fundamental duties to be performed by citizens (Article 51-A). One duty of paramount importance which should be performed is the duty to practise tolerance. Otherwise democracy, a basic feature of our Constitution, will be under siege and the cherished right to freedom of expression will be held hostage by an intolerant mindless mob.

(Soli J. Sorabjee is a former Attorney General of India)

More In: Lead | Opinion

That the fringe groups who sought ban on "Viswaroopam" has had the last laugh does not augur well for the society and the right of freedom of expression. Though one empathise with Mr.Kamal Hassan,as he was left with hobson's choice as his lifetime savings were at stake,his surrender will no doubt give impetus to the designations of many similar groups which are waiting at the wings to launch their own tirade on the right of expression enshrined in our constitution.

from:  Rajeev Kumar
Posted on: Feb 15, 2013 at 15:35 IST

Why not Ban the Political Tamasha in Parliament & Outside , which has little to do with the common minimum programme for the people of INDIA.We are ashamed of being in a democracy where there are still a plathora of issues that governs the state of our overall wellbeing & therby the counter reactions in the form of Bribery ,Purgery , Rape , murder & what not?Are we really ready to accept the dangers within our Governance style.If not we are destined to fail as a nation sooner or later.

from:  SANJIV
Posted on: Feb 15, 2013 at 13:34 IST

A very beautiful article written regarding the true spirit of democracy. As India is a multicultural society, it the fundamental right provided by the constitution to every citizen to live their life fullest. Every body has the right to express their opinion. WIf we are not agree then we shoul also make our opinion. This makes the environment more democratic. Mere creating violance in each statement shows our rising intolerance in this modern world.

from:  Ajay Kuamr ranjan
Posted on: Feb 15, 2013 at 13:15 IST

As much as i liked the piece, and recognizing the eminence of Mr Sorabjee, I was hoping to get a little more opinion and perhaps some plausible solutions other than just a statement of facts. I agree with pretty much everything he says in this column and perhaps I'm missing something here, but I don't see any new 'opinion' in here.

from:  graymalkin
Posted on: Feb 15, 2013 at 11:24 IST

Freedom of expression has always a limit. Your freedom stops where my nose starts. We have to understand where it hurts. The same people who give lectures on freedom can’t stand an honest advise by others. These people who are supporting the writer won’t allow freedom of expressions in the areas that hurt them, for example advise on modesty in dressing and behavior of our youngsters., advise on safe conduct to youngsters etc.

from:  satyam
Posted on: Feb 15, 2013 at 03:27 IST

Louis Brandeis, Associate Justice on the Supreme Court of the United
States, in 1927 said the following during a ruling on Freedom of speed.

"Fear of serious injury cannot alone justify suppression of free speech
and assembly. Men feared witches and burnt women. It is the function of
free speech to free men from bondage of irrational fears. . . Those who
won our independence by revolution were not cowards. They did not fear
political change. They did not exalt order at the cost of liberty. . . "

from:  Sandeep
Posted on: Feb 15, 2013 at 02:35 IST

Nice article that makes one sit back and contemplate. I would like to
mention an event of 1969. EV Ramasami Naicker's DK had taken out a
public procession with Hindu gods and godesses in pornographic poses.
The then government of Karunanidhi, not only gave police bandobust, but
prevented Cho Ramaswami from publishing the photographs taken, in his
magazine Tughlakh, by confiscating the printed copies! Eventually, they
were published in Illustrated weekly, and the central government did not
take any action. The hindu community remained silent.

from:  Santhanakrishnan Srinivasan
Posted on: Feb 14, 2013 at 22:22 IST

It is not good to see a message from a person like soli sorabjee to support the selfish actors. He can give suggestions and ideas for other issues which helpful to common man.

from:  M.MANOHARAN
Posted on: Feb 14, 2013 at 22:04 IST

Apropos to Sorabjee's article, the author has conveyed exactly what has
been running in the minds of Indians the world over.

Tolerance is paramount for democracy. Absence of tolerance creates hate.
And hate results in intimidaiton, blackmail and violence.

To live and let live must be the motto of humans.

from:  Mukund Rajamony
Posted on: Feb 14, 2013 at 21:57 IST

If we look at these bans from a traditional point of view, they might seem a little legitimate. I suppose that if you are screening a movie which is to be seen by a million people, which in turn will be moulding their perspective about a certain thing, you ought to adhere to certain religious sentiments. It is correct that the censorship board has approved some of the movies mentioned in the article. But these repeated demand for bans may also indicate the distrust of people on the censor tribunal. The process needs more transparency and public participation.

from:  Abhishek Gupta
Posted on: Feb 14, 2013 at 20:04 IST

A well articulated article on the rising intolerance by Sorabjee hope this will be an
eyeopener for everyone and would hopefully mitigate the dissent among us.

from:  karthik
Posted on: Feb 14, 2013 at 19:50 IST

This article totally reflects where our society is proceeding in this globalised world. Really considering the recent events, I feel courts are the last resort for the common man to still believe in democracy.
These situation reminds me of a quote by Japanese manga artist Yumi - "I wish there is a world where any one can know the truth and speak their mind with freedom without having to fear for their lives".

from:  balaji krishna
Posted on: Feb 14, 2013 at 14:16 IST

Excellent article. I think people -- atleast certain sections -- are
also more eager to protest against "hurt sentiments" because it gets
media coverage more easily these days.

from:  Raj N
Posted on: Feb 14, 2013 at 13:29 IST

This article has very well showcased the history of the 'Freedom of expression' in India.
Each and everyone in a free society should strive not to break the freedom of others in any of its forms.
It is also the responsibility of the government to curb the elements which increases intolerance in a democratic society.
The groups normally involves in protests seem to be more or less politically motivated rather than the true nature of the argument.
It so happens that if the reality is said aloud, it is always suppressed.

from:  ela
Posted on: Feb 14, 2013 at 13:25 IST

The fact that today we spaek only of fundamental rights and their protection but forget to remember the fundamental duties towards nation as resposible citizens is well pointed out here.

from:  shreyas
Posted on: Feb 14, 2013 at 13:24 IST

standard to be applied for judging the film or an Art should not be that of ordinary man or common sense but that of a responsible citizen, who Look the consequences. You can't contextualize the freedom of Expression..Constitution is For the People Not for Hurting their Sentiments..Suppose a person is while talking with us using offensive statements or abusing..Should not we stop him? or does it mean he enjoys freedom of expression..Art has now Gone out of Limits, or you can call artistic offense or abusing is displayed..which is unacceptable.

from:  Rafi Dar
Posted on: Feb 14, 2013 at 13:11 IST

The rising menace of intolerance - The author has rightly pointed out the facts regarding the intolerance of the public, it has become a fashion as if to raise objections for everything. Some people intend to catch the attention of mass and get media publicity just by objecting. This is the latest trend. Infact by doing this, they are wasting a lot of time of our judiciary just to settle these type of avoidable litigations. As our author has rightly pointed out, every citizen of India has the right to express his own views without fear and favour. It is only his views, it may be right or wrong. Nobody can impose one's view as right and others just to obey that, which is undoubtedly against the freedom of expression. I think in many of the cases, the main agenda of the opponent is to create a mass hysteria and catch the attention of the media and the public.

from:  Madhu V
Posted on: Feb 14, 2013 at 12:40 IST

I absolutely agree with Mr Soli Sorabjee's observations on the growing
menace of intolerance in India. Wonder if we live in a democracy or mobocracy.

from:  Keya Chatterjee
Posted on: Feb 14, 2013 at 12:23 IST

Kudos to the writer for the compilation of the bans which ranges from as
tiny as Mani Ratnam's Kadal to as complicated as Kamal Haasan's
Vishwaroopam. Need of the hour is that the judging panel should comprise
of people from all religions with diverse profiles who can validate an
art form from all aspects. After validation by the expert committee, the
concerned Govt must act in support of it and have the Law and Order in
control, instead of imposing bans on the art forms which were already
cleared the Censor Boards.

from:  Venkat
Posted on: Feb 14, 2013 at 11:59 IST

True, freedom of speech include right to offend.But don't you think
that it also include right to get offended.Of late some
'intellectuals' have started prescribing implicitly and explicitly
that victims of Gujarat massacre should 'move ahead'.Pathetic!A court
or general people can comment on the quantum of punishment for the
guilty but nobody has got this right to decide or comment on "How much
pain the victim should feel".Very often people invoke our culture and
civilization to justify something.Which culture they talk of?A culture
of subjugation and inhuman treatment to the majority for 3000 years
and blaming all the ills on Muslim invaders and Britishers.What about
the 'internal' marauders?If there was tolerance,it was by this
majority and that credit cannot be shared.I oppose attempts to harass
Kamal Hassan,MF Hussain or all those patriarchal crude statements of
some politicians.But I don't approve Nandy.But it seems you are trying
to project 'us' as one.Sorry,we are not!

from:  ajay
Posted on: Feb 14, 2013 at 11:57 IST

The Supreme Court has been doing a great job..but for how long and how often should it intervene?. It is high time the politicians do an introspection about their failure to promote the concept of secularism in post independent India. They have been promoting just the opposite by indulging in vote-bank politics and opportunistic ploys to achieve narrow, short-sighted objectives.

from:  Harikumar S
Posted on: Feb 14, 2013 at 11:37 IST

It has become a practice now by certain sections of society to highlight, reject and offend some(Infact most of the non-traditional views. This means changing the very definition of democracy and its we the people who should develop tolerance towards, not the Judicial supremacy that always(neither plausible in all situations)stands out in protecting the constitutional obligations.
Very good article showing what freedom of expression truly means, in a democracy.

from:  Shiva Kumar Adama
Posted on: Feb 14, 2013 at 11:37 IST

Our country seems to be at sea from the true meaning of freedom of speech. Even though the Supreme Court of India has by far laid the law ‘clear’ in front of us, we’ve somehow managed to make a mess of the message. While a politician gets away in the lee of ‘freedom of speech’ for revolting remarks against a well respected party of the country, a 21-year-old girl is arrested for a comment on her facebook account and her friend for liking it, I say. Contemplating examples like these, one wonders whether we actually comprehend the meaning of ‘freedom of speech’ which is one of the most important aspects of a democratic country.

from:  Aniket Jha
Posted on: Feb 14, 2013 at 11:22 IST

It's becoming a fashion these days to oppose anything from a speech
delivered to screening of a movie, from paintings to books. What worse
is that a small section of narrow minded people are able to dictate
things and create disturbance. Everyone has right to express his opinion
and that has been supported by the law. The freedom of expression is the
soul of our Democracy and a right in our constitution. Our society is
losing moral values these days but let's not lose our freedom to express
things in the way we want to.

from:  Akshay Dhadda
Posted on: Feb 14, 2013 at 11:00 IST

Superb Article. I wounder what would happen to this country if the
Supreme Court not be there. The growing intolerance in the country is
a matter of concern. The social attributes such as inequality,
corruption, unemployment, oppression are testing the patience of the
people of this country. In my views its not the intolerance but the
frustration speaking. India is a plural society and the aspirations of
the different groups are different. This difference in aspirations
reduces competition sometimes and at times arouses conflict. The
electronic media is also playing a major part in arousing sentiments
by sensationalizing issues.

from:  Divya Prakash
Posted on: Feb 14, 2013 at 10:56 IST

It is really a thought-provoking article by former Attorney General of
India. It cites the examples how apex court has insured freedom of
expression even in trying circumstances when state has given up. Being
citizen of world's largest democracy, we should practice tolerance in
words, manners and actions. We should give a patient hearing to
dissent voices also. Because if contrary or different views are
suppressed, there will be no creativity, innovation or out of box
thinking in the society. A just and democratic society listens
numerous different opinions and take decisions based on logic and
rationale.

from:  Amit Kumar
Posted on: Feb 14, 2013 at 10:43 IST

Excellent article. Mr.Sorabjee very convincingly expresses his arguments
for the freedom of expression in India and I concur with all the points
he makes.

from:  Anup
Posted on: Feb 14, 2013 at 10:33 IST
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