The fulminations of Team Anna against parliamentarians, in particular, Arvind Kejriwal, have brought to the fore the exact status of right to freedom of expression in India. In a country like the US, the right to free speech is almost absolute. All of the mature democracies know that free speech is the foundation of their existence. Unfortunately, where freedom has only recently dawned, and feudal culture and tradition still dominate, the urge to control and stifle remains strong, both, among those in power and those who find ‘security’ in hearing only what is palatable to their senses.
In the Indian system, the press derives its freedom of expression not from any law specific to it, but from the citizen’s freedom of speech, which can only be practiced under ‘reasonable restraint’. Over the years, governments and dispensations have interpreted this reasonable restraint in varying ways, the most notorious being during the period of the Emergency. Political developments and court rulings have worked to provide balance to the situation and it can be said that it is more difficult now than ever before to curb people’s right to express themselves and the content of what they say. The rapidly evolving technology, too, has made it impossible even for the most repressive of regimes to put a cap on dissemination of information.
It comes as a continuing surprise, therefore, that so many of India’s parliamentarians continue to claim ‘privilege’ against the opinions of others, in particular, their own constituents. Like the monarchs of old, they seek to kill the messenger rather than contemplate the import of the message being conveyed. The Kejriwals of the world may voice their disgust with the ‘public representatives’ on the public platform, but their opinions are reflected widely in the private thinking of the general public. It is impolitic, therefore, for parliamentarians to launch privilege motions against their detractors – how many will they throw into jail, or seek to ostracise? The condemnation of Kejriwal’s recent comments from all sections of the Lok Sabha indicates how quickly the politician changes. The BJP, which worked hard to ride on Anna’s coat-tails in the recent elections, suddenly found his team’s comments offensive and condemnable. Clearly, freedom of speech and the media are offensive to the psyche of the political class.
This was also seen in the decision by the Protem Speaker of the Uttarakhand Assembly to prevent the media from witnessing the election of the Speaker on Monday. According to the rules, the media can function only according to the ‘discretion’ of the Speaker. This has clearly been interpreted in the present instance as an absolute rule, even though by the admission of the Vidhan Sabha Secretariat, this is guided by convention. In the opinion, for instance, of the former Speaker, Harbans Kapoor, the rule does not justify exclusion of the media from such an important event, as it was not a ‘private event’. In fact, the compulsions of democracy require that the media be witness to such important events as the Speaker’s election for the sake of transparency and credibility. The democratic process can only be bolstered by the openness of a process.
Opposition legislators have objected to the use of such means by a government that had not even effectively proved its majority in the assembly. It would be natural to assume that a government that is effectively a ‘coalition’ of diverse ideologies would seek to adopt a consultative process, instead of take recourse to ‘enforcement’. It is clear that the beginnings do not augur well for an already beleaguered Uttarakhand media in the days to come. What other things would this dispensation seek to hide as the next five years unfold?