In 2014, when writer Perumal Murugan was forced to go silent for a period due to the excesses of a caste-based vigilante group with the backing of the district administration, there was justifiable outrage among writers and artists. There were protest meetings across Tamil Nadu. In one such meeting, a group of young artists came up with numerous posters that demanded that the freedom of expression be upheld. After the meeting, I was presented with a set of posters which were based on the poems by the modern Tamil poet, Atmanam. These posters adorn my office and constantly remind me not to take free speech for granted.
Right to free speech
In journalism, we talk about two forms of censorship: one imposed by external forces and the other imposed by us on ourselves due to fear. Though Mr. Murugan was granted relief by the High Court, legal scholar Gautam Bhatia, in his article “The fault in our speech” (July 7, 2016), pointed out the limitations in the court’s approach. The judgment was based on three rather restrictive arguments: “First, that the book has won many prizes, and has gained critical acclaim; second, that Indian culture had always celebrated sexuality until the Victorian British suppressed it; and third, that read as a whole, the book is not intended to titillate or eroticise, but instead, to make a broader point about how social pressures can impact individual lives.”
Mr. Bhatia rightly argued that “for speech to be truly free, the judiciary must stop asking literature to justify its aesthetic or its politics before the Bar, whether mediated by an awards jury or not”. Throughout South Asia, writers, poets and journalists often invoke the legendary Faiz Ahmad Faiz to defend our right to express ourselves fully. His poetry ‘ Bol (Speak)’ galvanised many for decades to fight for the fundamental right to free speech. He wrote: “Speak, for your lips are free; speak, for your tongue is still yours. Your upright body belongs to you; speak, for your soul still is yours”.
What unites a legal mind like Mr. Bhatia and a cultural icon like Mr. Faiz is their unending quest to secure rights for everyone. Mr. Faiz wrote the Report of the 1968 Standing Committee on Art and Culture, which was forgotten not only in Pakistan but across South Asia. It is important for courts and the governments to listen to Mr. Faiz. He wrote: “Culture is lived and evolved by the whole community… The arts are not a luxury. They are an important factor in a nation’s mental and moral health and productive efficiency.”
There is a body of literature about freedom of expression and freedom of the press. Such works talk about the excesses of governments and the legal recourse. But there are no clues in literature on how to deal with a government which makes its decisions in total secrecy. James Madison, author of the Bill of Rights in the U.S., once said that “a popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it is but a prologue to farce or a tragedy or perhaps both”. In India, now there is very little credible popular information. Journalists are forced to rely on sources and form an opinion based on conjectures.
On July 7, Prime Minister Narendra Modi effected a major reshuffle in his Cabinet. Beyond headline management by the government, citizens know very little about the factors that led to this change. The strap line that accompanied the reshuffle story on the front page of this newspaper read: “Move aimed at bringing in qualified professionals and balancing regional and community aspirations in the run-up to upcoming elections”.
I was intrigued by two sentences in the story. One read: “Government sources termed it an effort by Mr. Modi to strike a balance between political messaging of including MPs from various regional centres as well as from marginalised communities and beefing up the skill set of the ministries with professionally and educationally qualified additions.” And the other said: “Several ministries have been clubbed together, sources say, to increase synergy.” Why should journalists rely on sources for such perfectly legitimate and democratically valid reasons? Why was there no official briefing? Journalists are forced to cite sources because of the official silence. How do we address this important democratic deficit? The government is aware that secrecy is a potent weapon. It is no longer a prologue to farce or tragedy. It is tragedy.