22 Nov 2010

Freedom of Expression

Myanmar's military government recently released its opposition leader and democratic icon, Aung San Suu Kyi from 15 years of confinement.Its a real reason to celebrate as this nobel laureate re enters mainstream politics. Lets all hope that under her leadership, people of Myanmar will be able to overthrow the oppressive military regime and replace it with a democratic government.

Talking of Suu Kyi's freedom makes me ponder over the situation back home in India.Freedom of expression and the offense of sedition recently came under the radar after a meeting that was held in Delhi over the issue of Kashmir. The meeting was attended by prominent people like Arundhathi Roy, Geelani, Varavara Rao etc. who expressed their views on a free Kashmir. These not so popular ideas were met with strong criticism and various sections of the society including political parties like BJP demanded a case to be filed against them on the grounds of sedition. Sedition is the offense of doing anything that generates hatred towards government or invokes disharmony in the society. In crude terms its the opposite of freedom of expression. So urging for separating Kashmir from India and slamming government policies on Kashmir does sound like sedition. But then if you cant express your views on a sensitive topic, what is freedom of expression all about? Isn't it blasphemy to say that freedom of expression applies only to trivial day to day issues? The very reason for the right to exist is to empower people to voice their opinions on such sensitive issues. All that these people did was express their views on Kashmir. What is wrong with that? If they had urged the people to take up arms and fight against the government for a free Kashmir, then it would have been a totally different situation.

What alarms me is the readiness with which such issues are taken up by the people and how the government tends to buckle under pressure. The increasing number of book banning and censorship is an evidence to it. A film poster is all it takes to start off a string of burnings and protests. The youngest prodigy of the Thackeray family finds assault on Mumbai University syllabus the ideal way to make a grand entry into politics. Religious and regional sentiments should be given proper attention but it doesn't mean the government should allow any small issue to become a reason for curbing our fundamental right to expression. Censorship should be seen as an extreme step not an immediate remedy.

If these were communal and regional issues there is another more nagging side to the story- money power and influence. The ban on ' Polyester Prince-Rise of Dhirubhai Ambani'  is an example for this. This autobiographical work on  Dhirubhai Ambani written by Hamish Mac Donald lays bare the unholy relation between Ambani and Indian government. An account of how this industrial tycoon got away with non payment of duties, stock market rigging and silencing people who dared to raise their voice against its unethical ways and how he even brought down a central government would have provided for an interesting read. But the government obviously thought otherwise. The book was banned, apparently under the influence of Mukesh Ambani. Its really saddening that corruption has reached such a level that it only takes an influential business man to ban a book.

It will take at least another century for corruption to vanish from our society.But as long as there are people who are ready to raise their voice and fight for their rights, we have a little hope left.