How free is ‘Freedom of speech’?

Freedom of speech is the legal right to express one’s opinion freely. As inherent Human Right, freedom of speech is misunderstood many a time. Owing to the clashes erupted at Ramjas College between Left and Right factions on the campus, it needs to be reiterated how free ‘ freedom of speech’ can be?

1. Through the lens of Human Rights :

Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR),1948, which is a foundation document of all Human Rights and conventions drafted by the United Nations, talks about ‘Freedom of Speech’ in its Article 19. However , even UDHR does not give ABSOLUTE freedom of Speech. Article 29 of UDHR clearly mentions that any of the rights mentioned in the Document should be exercised keeping in view public order, morality and welfare in Democratic Society and the rights are subject to LIMITATIONS as determined by law.

2. Through the lens of Indian Constitution :

Article 19 of the Indian Constitution talks about Freedom of Expression and Opinion. Article 19 (1) clearly says that ‘Freedom of speech’ is not absolute. Article 19 (2) clearly states that ‘Freedom of Speech’  is subject to reasonable restrictions in the interest of Sovereignty and Integrity of India, the security of the state, friendly relations with foreign states, public order, decency or morality or in relation to Contempt of Court, defamation or incitement to an offence.

Article 51A which enlists ‘Fundamental Duties ‘ of all Citizens mentions that it is the duty of every Indian to uphold protect the sovereignty, unity and integrity of India and to uphold the spirit of common brotherhood among all people of India. The constitution talks about duties as well along with Rights.

3.  Pranav Mukherji, President of India, in his recent speech at Kerala was consistently using the word ‘legitimate‘ dissent. It is important to take note of the word ‘legitimate’ .

4. Through the lens of IPC

Section 124A in The Indian Penal Code : Sedition.—Whoever, by words, either spoken or written, or by signs, or by visible representation, or otherwise, brings or attempts to bring into hatred or contempt, or excites or attempts to excite disaffection towards, [***] the Government estab­lished by law in [India], [***] shall be punished with [im­prisonment for life], to which fine may be added, or with impris­onment which may extend to three years, to which fine may be added, or with fine. Explanation 1.—The expression “disaffection” includes disloyalty and all feelings of enmity. Explanation 2.—Comments expressing disapprobation of the meas­ures of the Government with a view to obtaining their alteration by lawful means, without exciting or attempting to excite hatred, contempt or disaffection, do not constitute an offence under this section. Explanation 3.—Comments expressing disapprobation of the admin­istrative or other action of the Government without exciting or attempting to excite hatred, contempt or disaffection, do not constitute an offence under this section.]

With this framework, Umar Khalid’s statements can not be excused as ‘Freedom of Speech’. In February 2014, UPA Govt declared a list of Maoist Front Organizations in the Parliament. DSU was enlisted as Maoist Front there and Umar Khalid was president of this DSU.  Bail Order for the Feb 9, 2016 issue,  in which Umar Khalid is an accused, had conditions that Umar should not make any public speech which can incite violence or is against sovereignty and integrity of the Nation. After his release on Bail, he gave a speech at JNU where he reiterated that he wants ‘Bharat se Azadi’ and not ‘Bharat mein Azadi’. Inviting a habitual provoker as a speaker on the subject ‘war in Adivasi area’ raises a question about intention and objective of wordcraft, the Literature club which organised the program at Ramjas College.

The principal reportedly cancelled Umar Khalid’s speech owing to his track record of hate speeches about breaking India. That is institutional right. Protest by students (who were not from Ramjas College) without prior permission in the Ramjas campus saying ‘Hamara Umar wapis lao, Bastar maange azadi, Kashmir mange Azadi‘ does not fit in any Constitutional or Human Rights.

Interestingly, Gurmeher Kaur, who is generally vocal about her rights, did not exercise her right of filing FIR against rape threats and instead filed complaints in DCW (Delhi Commission for Women). Saket Bahuguna from ABVP filed an FIR against rape threats to her. Why would a bold and outspoken lady like her shy away from filing FIR and prefers to limit the complaint to  DCW led by Swati Maliwal from AAP?

AISA (All India Students Association), who is now talking about Freedom of Speech and Constitutional Rights, held protest against a Tribal Woman (Shamnath Baghel’s wife) in Raipur for filing FIR against JNU Professor Nandini Sunder for her reported involvement in the killing of Shamnath Baghel. As per Baghel’s statement, Nandini Sunder threatened villagers to support Maoists. Shamnath Baghel, from Bastar, who filed an FIR against her, he was killed. Baghel’s wife reportedly witnessed that while killing Maoists kept on saying ‘why he filed FIR against Nandini Sunder ?’.  She filed another FIR. AISA protested against her fundamental right to file FIR.

Thus, in Ramjas College case, the main issue of cancelling the invitation to Umar Khalid by College Authorities for legitimate reasons is being diverted by a distorted narrative of violation of freedom of speech.  

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