By Manik Sharma May. 15, 2019
It is a bit rich on the part of our politicians to insult each other in the vilest language possible, yet jail a citizen over a meme. Why is free speech the one thing that no politician or institution in this country is willing to uphold or protect?
n April 14, Priyanka Sharma, a leader of the BJP’s youth wing BJYM (Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha) was released from police custody after having been arrested the day before for posting a meme mocking the Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee on Facebook. Granted bail on the condition that she must apologise to the CM, Sharma’s 48-hour trial is worrying, for the precedent it sets for other political parties looking to control and police civilians. Though finance minister Arun Jaitley tweeted later in support of Sharma and in particular over free speech, it was ironic coming from a government that has repeatedly used the British-era sedition law to curb freedoms and dissent. The courts have not been far behind with even streaming platforms in the country now facing censorship and regulation. All of this makes you wonder whether freedom of speech is too sophisticated a concept to grasp, or is it the one thing that no politician or institution in this country is willing to uphold or protect?
Only last August, in a spate of raids across the country, several human rights activists, critical of the current government were arrested. In its annual Report, Humans Rights Watch declared last year that freedoms like speech and expression have severely deteriorated in the country. Jammu and Kashmir has for example, hardly ever known what freedom of expression entails, while states like Rajasthan, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, and Telangana have acted with impunity against different forms of protest. This phenomenon, however, has not been limited to politics but has also seeped into our social transactions. Humour — satire at least — is frowned upon in public discourse, especially of the brand that one is unwilling to agree with. There is more pride than faith in things we believe must be left unquestioned, unchallenged, and therefore, true.
With that said, the web has also corroded the idea of free speech as much as it, at one point, looked set to offer its first real utopia. The birth of hammer-headed trolls and hate speech has only created doubt about something, that if not absolute, is nothing at all. Consequently, supposedly liberal platforms like Facebook and Twitter have had to invest a significant amount of their energies in curbing something that is principally against the nature of these platforms. Though a technical flaw on some levels, it wouldn’t be cynical to suggest people have turned their own tools on themselves, resulting in a form of disintegration from which politics and politicians around the world have profited. It has made it easier for them to divide us, along the lines that we would at some point perhaps have joked about.
America may be many things, but it has always upheld the right to free speech that is granted by the First Amendment.
In Sharma’s case, her post — a meme targeting Mamata Banerjee — was indeed politically motivated. Her right to mock a figure of power, though, must be considered sacred. It is a bit rich on part of the country’s politicians to insult each other with the vilest, most reprehensible language possible, yet escape untouched, let alone jailed or questioned. Is freedom of speech then, a subset of electioneering, or somehow a personal possession of those in power? The Constitution that invented the franchise of both free speech and democratically elected power now finds the former being denied its chapters by the latter. A majority of the attacks on free speech are largely vindictive and vengeful, often orchestrated by people who see liberty as a law unto themselves. Evidently, the stomach to digest dissent and humour has all but disappeared, leaving behind a ludicrously dehumanised idea of the self that more or less cracks once its powers of narrative are put to the test.
It is hard to find hope in such circumstances but perhaps lessons can be learnt elsewhere. America may be many things, but it has always upheld the right to free speech that is granted by the First Amendment. For the majority of his tenure, President Donald Trump has had to endure the jokes of the country’s late night shows. From his genitalia being approximated to being shown kissing the Russian president Vladimir Putin, there is no envelope that late night hosts haven’t pushed, that wouldn’t rile a man in power. Alec Baldwin’s goofy portrait of the President on Saturday Night Live is now a thing of legend. But while Trump has tweeted his disdain for this brand of comedy, no legal or civil loophole has been exploited to censor the artists behind these shows. The mockery continues unabated and its existence is testament to the character of America’s institutions, that they have chosen to place faith in the longevity of their principles, rather than the whims of a president or two.
Priyanka Sharma’s post might have been in bad taste, but like one cannot regulate taste, one cannot regulate offence in humour either. To add to that, arresting people over memes, however crude or motivated is an exaggeration of power. As long as free speech is not used to spread hatred, threaten, or abuse people with malice, the capacity to say and express as per will should be seen as a virtue far more important than any one person’s egotism or pride. A country is made by people, yes, but it is sustained by principles that surpass the whims and peeves of each one of them.