Freedom of expression has been humanity’s yearning in times ancient and modern. Freedom of speech and expression occupies a very high position in the Constitution of India because the Preamble to the Constitution of India itself guarantees to its citizens the “liberty of thought, expression, belief, faith, and worship.”
The term freedom of expression is usually used synonymously, but in the legal sense, includes any activity of seeking, receiving, and imparting information or ideas, irrespective of the medium used. A Democracy can survive only if there is a free and fair exchange of ideas.
But do we have Freedom of Speech in India?
Legally, yes. But in the past few years, a lot of incidents have taken place that proves the contrary.
Over the past couple of years, there had been a lot of criticizing of the government and a lot of arrests for the same. A total of 93 cases of sedition were reported in 2019, with 96 arrests, and charge sheets filed in 76 cases, as against 70 cases filed in 2018, 56 arrests, and 27 charge sheets. Out of the 56 arrested for sedition in 2018, as many as 11 were cleared and no convictions were secured, the data showed. Lately, it has become easier to file a complaint about ‘hurt sentiments’ than it is to file a complaint accusing someone of stalking or even sexual abuse. In June 2019, three journalists were arrested in two different cases for allegedly using and airing defamatory comments on the Chief Minister of UP, Yogi Adiityanath. Another case was of Abhijit Mitra, who was arrested by Orissa Police on September 20, from New Delhi with the assistance of Delhi Police, on charges of offending religious sentiments of the people. Let us not forget Jammu and Kashmir, where the ‘new media policy’ allows the government official to decide what is fake news and what is real news, and take action against the journalists accordingly. Like this, there have been several cases across India, which have considerably increased over the past couple of years.
So, practically, no, we do not have freedom of expression and speech in India when it comes to criticizing the government. Charges of sedition have recently multiplied in India as a way to curb free speech and intimidate government critics. A folk singer, students cheering at a cricket game, and the author Arundhati Roy are just a few who have been charged with sedition. In February 2016, Kanhaiya Kumar, the leader of the student union of Jawaharlal Nehru University, was charged with sedition under some politicized circumstances. The case kicked up a media storm and attracted worldwide attention following which India’s Supreme Court ordered Kumar bail and was released.
Similarly, India has become a difficult place for a journalist as well. Indian media has become increasingly concentrated in the hands of powerful, family-owned corporations. High-profile journalists whose views do not toe the new line have been pushed out or have quit their jobs. Self-censorship by journalists is a growing problem. Those who do speak out regularly face harassment and threats. Reporters Without Borders ranked India in 133rd place out of 180 countries in its 2016 World Press Freedom Index.
“Give me the liberty to know, to utter and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties”John Milton
Sidra Fatima is a student pursuing English Literature from Jamia Millia Islamia.
Edited by: Umar Farooque Shaikh