Democracy needs freedom of speech to survive and progress. Implicit in this is creative freedom, as expressed in art, literature, cinema, etc. Naturally, one also has the right to be offended – something that a certain narrative ignores. Differences are expected to be resolved through discussion and debate. Where it is believed that articulation of belief, opinion or even fact is defamatory or has caused material harm, there is recourse to the courts, which decide according to the law. As such, there is need of laws that lay down the line on what is permissible. Remember, freedom of speech in the Indian Constitution is subject to ‘reasonable restraints’. For example, spilling national secrets that could threaten national security would not come under ‘right to free speech’.
However, almost everybody agrees in the modern era that democratic societies must err on the side of free speech – the more of it, the better. People are expected to be mature enough to distinguish between truth and fallacy, even right and wrong, something that needs a context to be decided. However, there are those that do not believe in democracy, such as the ‘communists’, ‘fascists’, ‘jihadists’, etc. In fact, they use the democratic freedoms to undermine democracy. In the world of fake news and social media bubbles, they have acquired also the accelerative power of technology. They promote one-sided narratives and misuse power for these objectives.
The latest controversy regarding the OTT serial, ‘Tandav’, is an example of this dilemma in the present day. A democracy allows making of serials, etc., without censorship. Those offended by it have the option to protest on various forums and even approach the courts. That there are laws that apply makes it possible to avoid escalation into violence. As in the case of Tandav, a civilised response can be an apology that claims the affront was unintended and an offer to delete the particular scenes.
In contrast, without democracy and laws, the scenario can be like that in Afghanistan, where two female judges of the Supreme Court were recently assassinated by, very probably, the Taliban, who do not believe in women performing such roles. As such, there is need to have a sense of perspective when alleging ‘intolerance’. The laws may be open to interpretation and misuse – as is the case in the targeting of Kangana Ranaut in Maharashtra. Those taking offence may also be bigoted, targeting only certain individuals and communities. Perhaps, those so concerned about ‘defence of the nation and the constitution’ should consider the declaration made just a couple of days ago in Haridwar by one Swami Anand Swaroop, the President of the ‘Shankracharya Parishad’, on making India a ‘Hindu Rashtra’ and the Gita, its constitution. If that isn’t seditious and intent to subvert the constitution, what is? If this doesn’t raise concern, what are a couple of scenes in ‘Tandav’?