I Ask You, How Free is Free?

Right to free speech, which happens to be one of the most fundamental human rights, has been on the crosshair for a while now. People on the left are restricting free speech in an attempt to shape a more politically correct society, and here in India, our restrictive societal structure falls into disarray the moment someone voices an unpopular opinion. While technically we possess the right to free speech, but the ever-growing restrictions on what can be said and what cannot raise one single question: How Free is Free?

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The liberal left once used to be the Mecca for free speech absolutists, but now, with the ever-growing list of what cannot be said, the left has all but abolished free speech altogether. It started with being empathetic towards the oppressed but soon devolved into straight up restrictions on any unpopular opinion. With the increasing significance of ‘trigger warnings’ and ‘safe spaces’, liberals have successfully created a bubble void of free speech. Even the Alt-Right stance on free speech, absolutism, can be argued as making more sense than what the left is moving towards. Do not tell me to shut up, my opinion is not a threat to you, it’s an opportunity for dialogue.

If you are willing to sacrifice liberty for security, maybe you do not deserve either. Being progressive and inclusive does not mean you start telling others what they can say and they cannot. The left cannot adopt policies that the church did centuries ago, the left cannot become the new right. If the left continues this path, it will end up on the wrong side of all the issues, just like the right. Things back home aren’t very cheery either.

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Section 19 (B) of the Indian Constitution, Reasonable Restrictions to the Freedom of Speech Act mentions ‘Decency and Morality’ to be valid grounds for restricting free speech without quantitatively defining what constitutes as immoral or indecent. This tends to enable people who actively oppose free speech to restrict more and more of what can be said and what ought not to be said. That, combined with India’s charming ability to get offended over non-issues or challenges to bigoted traditions result in one of the least free speech enabled country. Instead of dealing with those vigorously trying to suppress free speech we end up apologizing to people who were ‘offended’. Your right to not be offended is not protected by the law, my right to say whatever I want to, is. If your counter to every constructive criticism ever are the Indian soldiers fighting at the border, while at the same time you refuse to raise your voice against their deplorable work conditions and minimal wages they receive, you need to stop pretending that your concerns are patriotic.

The double standards that people tend to show from time to time are also phenomenal. Back in 2012, it was okay to crack jokes about the then Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh but now when you crack jokes on Narendra Modi, it is suddenly anti-national, offensive and in bad taste. Suddenly, any criticism towards the Prime Minister is an attack directed towards the state.
But, we see through you.

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You don’t care about people being disrespectful towards a flaky, partisan Prime Minister with a political agenda. All you care about is people not being disrespectful towards your flaky, partisan Prime Minister with a political agenda. The saffron is in your party’s flag, not in our Constitution. You need to stop pretending that your concerns are patriotic.

The social structure of the Indian society is clearly restrictive of free speech, be it constructive criticism towards government policies or something as silly as a joke. Our censor board adds another dimension to the complete disaster of a country. It has been called one of the most restrictive censor boards in any modern-day democracy. Censorship is to art what lynching is to justice. Usually, that saying goes the other way around but in a country like ours, this makes more sense.

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If liberty means anything, it is the right to hear things you do not want to. One does not have the right to not be offended, however, you do have the right to protect your opinion. Tell me why I am wrong, do not take away my right to say it. The right to free speech is how civilizations move forward, ideas evolve, tyranny is kept in check, and above all, it is how people stay empowered. There is no gray area when it comes to freedom of speech, it’s either free, or it isn’t. And if we have to ask ‘How Free is Free’, maybe it isn’t free after all.

By Satwadhi Das

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