Freedom of Speech and Expression—words written or a right implemented?


By Kanika Rangray

In the Constitution of India, there are few phrases which define to us our fundamental rights. One of these phrases talks about the “Right to Freedom of Speech and Expression.”

This right is also known as Article 19 of the Indian constitution and in basic terms it says: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression, which includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

But one question has repeatedly and frequently emerged—is this fundamental right actually implemented or is it just few words written on a piece of paper in a book called “The Constitution of India.”

Viewer discretion not sought

Photo credit:
Photo credit:

The most recent incident due to which this question highlighted itself again is the ban on porn websites demanded by the government. The ban on websites which relate to pornography was put forward giving the reason that such websites are one of the reasons behind the increasing rate of crime against women and children in the country.

The long and short of it means that you’re telling an adult what he can and cannot watch on the net, even if it is within the four walls of his room. This would call for encroaching not only upon the right of freedom of speech and expression but also on the right of personal liberty.

There are also other instances which question the grounds on which we claim to the world that we are the world’s largest democracy, in which all citizens have equal fundamental rights—the right to speak for themselves, the right to express our opinions with full freedom.

This move of the government fuelled quite an uproar throughout the country and provoked a nationwide debate about censorship and freedom.

Due to the continuous criticisms faced by this action, the government had to bow down and lifted the ban partially by lifting the ban on “sites that do not promote child porn.”

Photo credit:
Photo credit:

Fifty shades blurred

India’s censor board banned the release of a censored or toned-down version of the US film Fifty Shades of Grey. The erotic movie, which was an international box-office hit, was turned down by the censor board despite several expletives and nude scenes edited out.



Literature buried, never to be discovered

In 2014 Penguin India was made to destroy all unsold copies of ‘The Hindu: An Alternative History’, authored by Sanskrit scholar Wendy Doniger, in India. The destruction was done on the court’s orders which were in response to a petition filed by Shiksha Bachao Andolan or the Save Education Movement, a Hindu fundamentalist group which deemed the book insulting and threatening to Hindu culture.

Photo credit:
Photo credit:

These self-appointed guardians of Hindu religion deemed the author’s treatment of ancient Hindu myths as human creations rather than divine truth, insulting and also called it a crime.

Paint all black

Photo credit:
Photo credit:

Famous Indian painter, the late M.F. Hussain, was forced into self-imposed exile in 2006, after his canvasses—some of which depicted Hindu deities naked—were vandalised by right-wing Hindus, once again self-imposed guardians of Hindu orthodoxy.

Such a long journey forced to end

An award-winning 1991 novel, Such a Long Journey, authored by Rohinton Mistry was removed from the University of Mumbai’s curriculum, after the late Bal Thackeray, leader of the rightwing Shiv Sena, objected to how he and his party were depicted in the fictional level.

Photo credit:
Photo credit:

Say no to Facebook

And speaking of Bal Thackeray, it is essential to talk about the Facebook controversy which erupted after his death.

Near riots took place in Mumbai because of a facebook post after his death, which questioned the Mumbai bandh which was declared to mourn the death of Bal Thackeray.

The girl, who made the post, simply said that we do not mourn the death day of martyrs like Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev and Rajguru, freedom fighters who earned respect and love by their actions. But a Mumbai bandh was called to mourn the death of a person who was respected and loved because people were afraid of him, afraid of the consequences of raising a single voice against him.

This was her opinion and she voiced it out loud, but the consequences were such that now you even question what you have written before you click the “post” button on your account.

Photo credit:
Photo credit:

After recalling all these incidents above, is it even wise to write out this article, is there still the freedom of speech and expression to question the implementation of Article 19 of the constitution or has that also been curbed.

Freedom with “reasonable restrictions”

In a bid to curb blatant opinions being voiced out without care of the feelings of a person or a group of people or a community, and without paying any heed to consequences, the Indian constitution introduced Article 19(2) which cites certain ‘reasonable restrictions’ to the right to freedom of speech and expression.

Under these restrictions, the legislature is allowed to monitor free speech in the following conditions:

  • Restrictions can be put on free speech if it is in the interest of the security of the state.
  • The State can put reasonable restrictions if it could in any way hamper friendly relations with foreign states.
  • To maintain public order- this means public peace, safety and tranquillity. This amendment was called after the Romesh Thapar vs State of Madras case in 1950 where the supreme court said, “Freedom of speech and of the press lay at the foundation of all democratic organisations, for without free political discussion no public education is possible.”
  • Decency and morality: In the Indian Constitution, the word ‘indecency’ is equivalent to ‘obscenity’ and according to this restriction the State can charge “if the tendency of the matter charged as obscene can deprave and corrupt the minds which are open to such immoral influences.”
  • Contempt of Court: It refers to civil contempt or criminal contempt of courts, and no attempts should be made to impair the administration of justice.
  • Defamation: This restriction prevents any person from making any statement that injures the reputation of another. It has also been criminalised in India by inserting it into Section 499 of the Indian Penal Code.
  • Incitement to an offense: This restriction prohibits a person from making any statement that incites people to commit offense.
  • Sovereignty and integrity of India: This prohibits anyone from making statements that challenge the sovereignty and integrity of India.

After reading through all eight “reasonable restrictions” mentioned in Article 19(2), what remains—can we call it freedom of speech or should it be freedom of guarded speech.