A very recent television debate hosted by Tim Sebastian of Bloomberg TV on the topic – “Free Speech Under Serious Threat In India” has been received very enthusiastically by both the TV audience and those on the social web. It is quite clear that both the studio audience and the larger viewing public overwhelmingly agreed with the motion. However the main cause for the near celebratory response received by the debate was the performance of Mrs Madhu Trehan. She spoke for the motion full of passion and made her case with a lot of verve. I applaud her for her robust defense of free speech. It was heartening for once to see a Delhi based lady journalist who was neither in awe of Dr. Shashi Tharoor nor impressed by his arguments. Mrs.Trehan in a way echoed the thoughts and sentiments of many of the viewers – who lack either the opportunity or the ability to express themselves articulately from such a stage.

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Despite the overwhelming popular “victory” for the side that voiced concerns about free speech it was hard not to notice some of the common oversights committed by those voicing support for genuine free speech. A brief analysis of this debate might pave way for a more refined strategy for future debates. It is often noticed that in most of these debates the pro-censorship persons come out looking quite good and civilized at the end of the debate. This is because of two structural failings of those supporting free speech – they fail to put sufficient distance between themselves and the censors, thereby allow for a lot of gray and they fail to expose the bigotry of the mind that wants to censor to the viewing public. The other suicidal error made by Madhu Trehan in this debate was with the choice of partner. Unlike Anil Dharker who bowled in tandem with Tharoor and quiet perfectly to the field set, N.Ram ( Mrs Trehan’s partner on the panel ) was like the tail-ender who perpetually stood at the non-striker’s end trying to get the in-form batsman runout every other ball! Marxists are bound to score a goal for censorship independent of which team they are on. You can’t expect a species to fight its very DNA. This is what N.Ram said, in “defense” of free speech –

“People’s issues aren’t sufficiently highlighted by the mainstream media, and that itself is a violation of the free speech“

And then he proceeded to show-off the crown jewel of his publication – P. Sainath, who has according to him made model use of free speech by highlighting “people’s issues”. If N. Ram and his ilk are allowed to become torch bearers of free speech in India be rest assured that soon we will have a free speech tax imposed on every blog, the proceeds of which will be routed to voice “people’s issues” and a big list of DO’s and DONT’s of free speech drafted by those occupying the high offices of NAC.

Move the Battle lines

The pro-censorship team was quite brazen in openly stating that unlike the Europeans and the Americans, Indians are incapable of handling free speech. While the Congress and it’s left-lib cheerleaders have always supported a wholesale import of western principles like secularism and welfare state to India, they are petrified of a US style 1st amendment to the Indian constitution. Dr. Tharoor tried to sell the idea that most Indians were religious fanatics to the audience. On such occasions anyone countering the pro-censorship arguments is absolutely required to say that free speech has to include criticism of religion and hate speech too and the necessary constitutional amendments to this end must be brought in at the earliest. Mrs. Trehan failed to take this line and Tharoor used this as a license to bring up the argument about religion on more than one occasion.

If Mrs Trehan had indeed taken this stance on free speech she would’ve been much more successful in bringing out the bigotry in the minds of Tharoor and Anil Dharker. However, N.Ram too would’ve openly supported the pro-censorship team on this point. In fact he might have quietly moved his chair next to Tharoor on the other side of table. That would’ve been a debate worth having, a point worth scoring. Heavy handed rules like the IT Act etc must be used to simply underscore how censorship can manifest itself and the debate must be elevated to point out the source of such laws – which is the Tharoorusque mindset of our governing elite.

Christopher Hitchens and Shashi Tharoor had an epic debate on this very question of free speech and Hitchens stood up for free speech (including hate speech) and made Shashi Tharoor sound and look like a 5 year old! If you already haven’t, do watch that debate embedded below.

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Free speech for all

Being a journalist herself, it is only natural that Mrs. Trehan should be concerned about the hurdles presented by free speech denying laws to her profession and her colleagues. She pointed out how the Govt Of India blocked webpages and twitter handles of around 15 individuals. However, my reading of her statement on the whole seemed to indicate that most of her concern was focussed on the fact that media organisations like the TOI and even a couple of [ out of the 15 ] journalists had their Twitter handles blocked. However, in reality, that last wave of censorship was specifically targeted to block and take down blogs and twitter handles of persons who had nothing to do with the mainstream media. Does she have the same sympathy for someone like Chaitanya Kunte who was forced to take down his blog under the threat of legal action by a media organisation (NDTV)? The growing distrust of the Indian Media has it’s origins in such conduct by those at the very top of the media profession.

Time and again the elites of the Indian media have openly sided with strict defamation and privacy laws even at the cost of free speech. Indian constitution (to the best of my knowledge) doesn’t grant any special privileges to the press. What this means is that on the issue of free speech the media and the individuals sink or swim together. It would be a win-win if those journalists (like Mrs. Trehan) committed to free speech and other public-spirited organisations and bodies could come together to form a purposeful lobby to further the cause of free speech in India with a long term agenda. Till then I would like the pro free speech team to have at least some representation from outside the mainstream media.

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Manohar Seetharam

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