Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

India's Free Speech Apocalypse

By Tanisha MohapatraPublished March 31, 2016

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Written by Tanisha Mohapatra, 3/31/2016 India has long been embroiled in tensions over rights of free speech. Although the country is a democracy in structure and promotes the protection of these rights, the government's arrest of Kanhaiya Kumar and crackdown on student activism has only highlighted the nation's need to practice its preachings.
Over the past month, the world's largest democracy has been split over free speech tensions sparked by sedition arrests undertaken by the BJP government. Police cracked down on protesters at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), one of the country's premier educational institutions, and arrested Kanhaiya Kumar, the president of the JNU students' union. Kumar's union was organizing a commemorative event to protest the 2013 hanging of Afzal Guru, a Kashmiri man convicted of facilitating an armed attack on the Indian parliament in 2001. He was charged with sedition and criminal conspiracy under sections 124A and 120B of the Indian Penal Code.

With initial widespread media portrayal of Kanhaiya Kumar as an anti-India slogan shouting communist, he had been the subject of remarkable public anger and outrage. The coverage on certain media outlets was such that it seemed as if the ‘innocent until proven guilty' adage did not apply to Kumar, who was repeatedly labelled a traitor to the nation. The whole incident is riddled with chaotic elements, preventing any layman from ascertaining the truth - there are accusations that Kumar denies outright, there is a media that unduly sensationalized the case, and there are even allegations of the media doctoring videos to manipulate public perception. One thing, however, is certain: after being granted interim bail for six months by the Indian courts, Kumar has become a champion of free speech and expression in India. Now, his rhetoric seems to represent the ideal  lines of a democracy's duty to celebrate discussion, debate, and dissent. He is effectively using the limelight that the BJP government gave to him on a silver platter, to question the democratic nature of the country's governance and the archaic sedition laws that curtail Indian citizens' freedom of speech.

Underlying this political controversy is a historic ambivalence about what constitutes freedom of speech in India. The Indian constitution provides for freedom of speech and expression, but with several exceptions, including speech that undermines "the sovereignty and integrity of India" or public order. According to the New York Times, "The provisions are not unusual, but what has stymied freedom of speech, as a value and a legal right, is its history of being undermined for political gain by leaders across the ideological spectrum." These laws date back to the colonial era, and sedition charges have been used and misused in successive governments, often targeting political opponents rather than people inciting violence, which is the aim of the law. While free speech is enshrined in the constitution as a Fundamental Right under Article 19, it has been undermined by various sections of the penal code, the courts and successive governments, and is not always supported by the public.

The recent handling of something that started out as a student protest at JNU, a campus that is known for its extensive student activism, has turned the tables on the BJP government altogether. The Indian Express reports, "JNU student leader Kanhaiya Kumar on Friday vowed to wage a "direct fight" against "dictatorship" as he accused the government  of targeting universities across the country and sought support of all democratic forces it was about saving the country." In arresting student leaders who claim to have only exercised their right to free speech and not harbor anti-India sentiments, the government only provided an opportunity for them  to turn their feelings into a nationwide clamor. The handling of this incident and the publicity it has received has generated a buzz about free speech, the future of India, and what it means to be "anti-national. The country is aflame and divided on what constitutes freedom of speech and what constitutes "reasonable restrictions" as enshrined in the constitution: as a nation with a history of communal riots, restrictions were largely put in place to protect citizens by preventing such violence from occurring. Now, India is debating when this "protection" transcends into exploitation by the state, as journalist Pratap Bhanu Mehta notes, "The fact that even people who push the boundaries of expression are safe makes us all feel safe," calling the act of threatening democracy a bigger threat to India's nationalism than anything the protesting students did.