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SC lifts ban on Padmaavat: High time states step up to protect freedom of speech, fringe must not be catered to

If one person commits violence, it's a crime, but if you gather a group of people to commit violence in the name of being offended then you've got a social movement. It sounds absurd, but that seems to be the case in India right now. The Supreme Court today stayed a ban imposed on the film Padmaavat by the Gujarat, Rajasthan, Haryana and Madhya Pradesh governments. The states banned the film citing certain groups had threatened law and order problems.

Supreme Court of India. AP

File image of Supreme Court of India. AP

Various groups across the country have openly threatened violence if the film is to be released. These include many Rajput groups, who claim the story and the portrayal of the mythical queen offends the sentiments of their community.

The first question: In a civilised country, why are the leaders of these groups which threaten law and order problems not already detained? If any average person were to walk down the street threatening to burn down cinema halls they would be detained by law enforcement. However, if you are a religious or communal figure (across the board) and you carry some sort of a banner, you are not detained by the police. Instead, the police form a cordon around you.

During the recent law and order disturbance in Mumbai on account of the bandh called by caste groups, this author wrote on the need for political classes to support law enforcement as they go about their job. However, it appears that when it comes to speech, the political establishment always seems to be on the side of the mob. Things appear to be banned as a matter of routine in India and bans are lifted by the courts. It almost seems as though political parties prefer to hide behind a judicial order as a justification for free speech, rather than affirming constitutional truths.

Isn't the first duty of any government to maintain law and order? If there are groups openly going around threatening violence in the name of being offended by a film, then these groups need to be detained (at once) for inciting the commission of criminal offences. This is because freedom of speech is not just a fundamental right, but it is a basic right which makes our country work. Without this right, there would be a fundamental breakdown in the marketplace of ideas.

The right to free speech cannot be exercised if there is a consistent threat of violence against those who exercise that right. In India, one is subject to that consistent drone: The right to free speech has limits. But one never seems to hear that the right to take offence by free speech also has limits. No person has the right to commit violence or breach the peace if they are offended. If one is offended by something, they too are protected by the right to free speech. They can say they are offended, they can encourage people to not watch the film. But saying they will burn down cinema halls? Attack movie goers? Pushing school children off a stage for dancing to a song?

Cartoon by Manjul.

Cartoon by Manjul.

Why do governments continue to tolerate this nonsense by succumbing to these thugs and passing such bans in the first place? Thugs who engage in this kind of behaviour should not be encouraged. They should be arrested and preferably sentenced to long periods of imprisonment. The four states which banned the film are all ruled by the party that is in power at the Centre.

But today, when the Centre displayed rare moral courage by supporting the lifting of the ban on the film, one wonders if this is the stance of the party or merely a fight between the Centre and the states over power.

But to the larger point, it is vital that governments step up and take a stand that is pro-freedom of speech. They should not succumb to goons who threaten violence in the name of being offended. If people are trying to communalise the issue, then these people need to be shamed.

It is a film. If people find the film distasteful, they don't have to watch it. It is not as though they are being strapped to a chair and being made to watch it as a punishment. They can go watch another film, or even better, raise money and make their own film. It costs money to buy petrol to burn down a cinema. This money can be used to make their perfect film. Their own version of the story.

For this is the marketplace of ideas. It allows each person to believe what they want, portray what they want and say what they feel like. If the consistent drivel from the political establishment is that freedom of speech has its limits, then the same drivel must say: So does the so-called right to be offended.

 

 


Updated Date: Jan 19, 2018 14:52 PM

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