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Sunday, February 17, 2013

How to improve freedom of speech in India

Most of us in India understand that there is a huge problem with freedom of speech in India. India now ranks at the bottom of the world on freedom of speech. Here is some interesting discussion on such facts.

For a sense of the zeitgeist, see an editorial and Lawrence Liang in the Economic Times. R. Jagannathan on FirstPost reminds us that judges in India are not intellectuals who will lead the way on this.

Public shaming

There are two ways through which things are getting better. The first area of importance is public outrage. Even if India has laws that hinder free speech, we should all speak up and establish social norms in favour of free speech, where the use of existing laws that support attacks on freedom of speech is just not done.

As an example, Vodafone embarked on legal bullying against one person, but backed away when faced with outrage.

A splendid example of this push back is IIPM. Recent events (link, link) should make IIPM regret having gone down this route. Speaking for me, I have not accepted and will not accept invitations from IIPM for speaking or writing in their publications, and I will be quite circumspect about resumes that carry the name IIPM. (This is my standard operating procedure for left tail organisations in India). If enough of us do this, it will establish deterrence.

Outrage matters. We should be naming and shaming the offenders and maintaining a hall of shame.

Fixing the laws

The real problem is the laws. Modifications are required -- large and small. We need to shift away from proscribing defamation, obscenity, blasphemy to a stance of supporting freedom of expression. Restrictions on freedom implemented through government control on the Internet need to give way to accepting freedom of the Internet. What is new in recent months is that the outrage has bubbled up to the point where many people are saying Let's go fix the laws:

  • An excellent television conversation between Shashi Tharoor and Karan Thapar.
  • Pratap Bhanu Mehta in the Indian Express talks about the unusual response of Omar Abdullah and a delicious quotation from Manish Tewari.
  • Suketu Mehta in the New York Times says that we must fix the Constitution.
  • Jay Panda, Lok Sabha MP, has begun working on private members bills that will fix the laws.

Small modifications of the laws will constitute elements such as: shifting defamation from criminal to civil liability, and having a provision where costs are always paid to the defendant if the accusation does not hold. Fundamental change will constitute fixing the Constitution.


Capitalism and freedom reinforce each other. Both require the ability to think (freedom of speech, freedom of thought) and the ability to act (to vote, to transact, to conduct business, to live). Achieving freedom requires pushing on both fronts -- on establishing a vibrant and open `marketplace for ideas' and on establishing freedom to act.

IIPM reminds us that apart from being a question of high ideas, this is a question of simple consumer protection. When a person thinks of getting a degree, he should have full information about the choices, and IIPM is trying to block that information. Similarly, consumer protection requires that for any publicly visible financial product or service, there should be an unrestricted marketplace of ideas, otherwise the ability of consumers to make wise choices is impaired.

In the best of times, liberal democracies suffer from too little criticism. If we are to make progress on dealing with the problems of corruption and runaway governments, the most important channel is high quality, pointed, trenchant criticism. The present laws are grossly out of touch with the principle of freedom of speech. We need to go fix that: first as a matter of social custom, and then as a matter of law. It appears that there is some movement on both fronts.


  1. I thought Tharoor was quite disappointing in the interview. He is improving though. I saw him show up in the media in defense of the govt's move for censorship of certain links (via Google). And, he had to beat a hasty retreat when he was informed that majority of the links were offensive against politicians (and not against religious sensitivities like he was claiming).

    The problem is that he is always going to be a diplomat. He will never, ever speak up in an unqualified manner for something. It is his job to lead. Unfortunately, a diplomat does not lead and Tharoor has not transitioned from a UN diplomat to a govt leader. Apparently, his bio says that he was in charge of image management at the UN. Oh Lord, please save us from such people.

    Blaming the media was again quite pathetic. Unfortunately, in our country, we think that someone who can put two sentences together is saying something profound, when all they are doing is beating around the bush. Our entire elite is like that these days. Superficial, no depth, no steadfastness, no sincerity.

    Its not all lost though. Manish Tewari and Jay Panda were far more clear and unambiguous in their statements. Love the fact that Jay Panda is not merely suggesting changes, but a clear repeal of the problematic portions. Bravo! Jay for PM!!

    What is ironic about these laws is that they themselves cause the most offense to the people who love freedom, and that is the greatest offense of all. So by their own interpretation, these laws are the most guilty. What irony! If ever there was a black hole in the legal system, this is it! A law that offends the majority by saying that offense is to be punished! The law framer should be in jail according to the law he/she framed. I wonder why people don't file counter FIRs on people who asked that Nandy be arrested? They were quite offensive to far more people, were they not? Lets take this to the logical conclusion in the courts... everyone in jail. I should file an FIR against court orders that banned something, because that was offensive. I suppose I would have to threaten violence, if that is what is needed to be taken seriously.

  2. awesome comment! Bravo!

    also agree wholeheartedly on the Tharoor criticism....he is still a diplomat who is simply focusing on (at times, balancing) 2 objectives: creating a good public image for himself and creating a good image for himself in Sonia Gandhi's eyes.

    He is probably doing some work in his constituency but that's it...

  3. Jaggi's post with quotes from SC on the Nandy case is frightening. How does one deal with this issue of bad quality of judges? I guess lawmakers have to clarify the laws and not leave them open to wide interpretation, given the quality of judges. It should certainly give pause to people supporting things like Lok Pal which would give more power to such people in judiciary?

  4. In India freedom of speech is curbed by the constitution amendment itself and can be used against anyone if government feels offended, which is subjective


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