Why the Future of Free Speech Depends On India


Timothy Garton Ash in conversation with Salil Tripathi


By Apekshita Varshney, ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival Official Blogger


The horrors of censorship are rarely felt instantaneously. Often, rights are infringed upon piecemeal, until eventually people become accustomed to the status quo, almost oblivious to the changes they have undergone. British historian, author, and Professor at Oxford University, Timothy Garton Ash, engaged in a well-rounded discussion with eminent writer, Salil Tripathi on why the future of free speech in the world depends on India.

It’s not every day that a British man apologises to an Indian audience about the British Empire’s throttling of free speech, and the rotten legacy of sedition and defamation laws it left in India. Ironically, although Great Britain has since moved past such draconian rules, seditious speech can still get you jailed in India today. The importance of free speech was elucidated by Timothy Garton Ash: ‘freedom of speech is the freedom that enables us to demand all other freedoms.’ He categorized the three main players on the world stage today; ‘the big dogs’ (the government), ‘the big cats’ (the corporations), and ‘the mice’ (the people). Ash observed that ‘a game of thrones is fought between who will control speech.’

While India has a rich history of discourse, and the Indian constitution enshrines the principles of free expression, the question arose whether the ‘reasonable restriction’ clause in Article 19 limits true free speech. Ash argued that most countries have reasonable restrictions but what is not acceptable is an ‘assassin’s veto’ which says, ‘I’m offended and I’ll kill you,’ or indulging in dangerous politics, such as accusing people of being ‘anti-national.’ Ash added that freedom of speech restrictions in India are like ‘rubber paragraphs that can be stretched and go vastly overboard.’

Ash expressed his concern about a subject he believes keeps many writers in India awake at night, namely that ‘India is headed in the wrong direction, where the government is imposing a very simple, nationalist narrative on a diverse society.’ Salil Tripathi reminded the audience of incidents such as the arrest of students protesting at Jawaharlal Nehru University, the banning of books by renowned historians like Romila Thapar, and the brutal, unapologetic murders of rationalist activists like Narendra Dabholkar and M.M. Kalburgi, to highlight how strong the ‘assassin’s veto’ is in India. Tripathi furthermore reminded the audience of the tortures inflicted on Tamil author Perumal Murugan, who decided to stop writing rather than endure further threats from extremist groups.

In addition to discussing the problems with free speech in India, potential solutions were also investigated. Ash believed that ‘the government must offer protection, courts must uphold the law, and the society must offer solidarity.’ The session concluded with a look at worrisome developments online, such as how corporations like Facebook and Google interfere with freedom of speech by mediating what viewers are able to see. Ash believes that instead of state intervention, people ‘must demand transparency’ because it is the customers who drive the profits of these corporations. Timothy Ash signed off the session by reminding the audience that ‘free speech is a weapon against the powerful’ and it is essential it is protected.

Photo Credit: Rajendra Kapoor



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