Tarak Biswas and India’s Fragile Freedom of Speech
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Tarak Biswas and India’s Fragile Freedom of Speech

Instead of a game of whataboutery, we need to debate the laws in IPC that constrain freedom of speech

By Sandip Roy

Published on :

Most of us have no idea what he actually wrote, but we do know Tarak Biswas is in trouble. It’s an all too familiar story in India these days. He posted something on social media that offended someone. And before you knew it, he was facing the usual gauntlet according to DNA. 

Section 295A and 298 of the Indian Penal Code. Sections 66, 67 and 67A of the Information and Techonology Act. 

Insulting religion. Hurting religious feelings. Posting and sending offensive messages.

The unholy trinity to squelch free speech is always at the service of the state. 

Biswas allegedly posted something that critiqued Islam. Local Trinamool leader Sanaullah Khan registered the first information report (FIR) though state government representatives have not commented on the issue. The blogger is now reportedly in police custody for the next seven days.

But it’s quickly shaping into a whataboutery battle. An article in Swarajya about the incident is headlined “Blogger Arrested in Bengal for Criticizing Islam – Where are the Champions of Free Speech Now?” As a matter of fact, the rights group Association for Protection of Democratic Rights (ADPR) has demanded his release and the withdrawal of all cases against him, even while not supporting the comments he made on social media. However, the real problem is when we turn the Tarak Biswas story into a Left-Right story or a Hindu-Muslim-double-standards narrative, we give the real culprits in this a pass. 

The real problem is the law is so easy to abuse. The real problem is we have enshrined the right to be offended in law. The real problem is laws which might have once been meant to ensure religious harmony in a country as diverse as India, but are today used more often than not as a way to bludgeon one group or another into silence. 

But as long as we see each infraction through the prism of one political ideology, we remain hopelessly divided on the issue. Tarak Biswas absolutely enjoys as much right to freedom of expression as Kanhaiya Kumar and vice versa. Unless we get that vice versa into our heads we will always be using each incident to score political points on each other and never taking the state and its laws to task. We are too busy measuring the quantum of outrage, of being justified in our feelings that anti-Muslim speech is punished while anti-Hindu speech is not, or the reverse. Mamata’s Bengal will be seen to punish one kind of speech more than Fadnavis’s Maharashtra, but the fact of the matter is speech will be punished. 

All kinds of speech land us in trouble. Whether it’s protesting about a city shut down for Bal Thackeray’s funeral or critiquing religion or saying something rude about Uttar Pradesh strongman Azam Khan. In Bengal, where the mind is without fear and the head is held high, a cartoon forwarder famously earned the wrath of the administration and was hauled into lock-up. And let’s not point fingers at Trinamool alone. Taslima Nasreen was expelled from Kolkata by the Communist government in 2007. 

Nasreen, as expected, has stood up for Tarak Biswas asking on Twitter, “India wants to be like Bangladesh?” Her point is in Bangladesh, mukta-mona or open-minded bloggers have been brutally hunted down for airing their views. The government there has criticised the killings, but also suggested that the bloggers are playing with fire by posting such views. Unfortunately India does not have to become like Bangladesh. India has enough laws in its arsenal to crack down on folks like Biswas, as has been long evident. 

Freedom of speech has always been the most frail of our freedoms and it’s been designed that way. In the United States, the First Amendment to the Constitution was to ensure and bolster the freedom of speech, prohibiting any law that might abridge it. The First Amendment to the Indian Constitution passed by the Nehru government in 1951did the reverse.  It was an amendment against the “abuse of freedom of speech and expression.” And it was prompted by the leftist weekly Crossroads’ critique of Nehruvian policy. 

The one positive development in recent times was the Supreme Court throwing out Section 66A of the IT Act, which had been used as a prime weapon of harassment by the state when it encountered speech it did not like. The law was struck down in March 2015, but the ghost of 66A is still alive and kicking. A report in Medianama indicated that according to National Crime Records Bureau statistics the police made 3,137 arrests under 66A in 2015 despite the fact that it has officially been struck from the Indian Penal Code. Eighty two of those were of juveniles. Section 66A had been invoked against Ram Gopal Verma for making fun of Lord Ganesha on Twitter. In April 2015, 66A was invoked against a Facebook user in Thane for allegedly posting unsavoury comments about Narendra Modi.

It’s clear that many in the police are not aware that Section 66A no longer exists. But should that be an excuse? Ignorance of the law does not grant any other citizen reprieve when they are accused of say, tax fraud or immigration mess-ups.

Narendra Modi. Islam. Lord Ganesha. Mahatma Gandhi. Azadi in Kashmir. The list of the unmentionables just keeps growing in India and the right to be offended keeps getting stronger. Tarak Biswas is its latest victim.  

All free speech advocates should speak up for Tarak Biswas. But “Where are the JNU-walas?” is the wrong question. That might help a narrative of ideological victimhood, but it does not help Biswas’ right to say what he feels on social media. Tomorrow when another Kanhaiya Kumar lands in trouble, the other side will ask, “Where are the Tarak Biswas-walas?” Until we can all stand up for the right of free speech especially when we disagree with what has been said, the debate over freedom of expression will be trapped in a vicious circle. And the state will have the last laugh as usual because we are too self-centred in our own victimhood to see that ultimately the law can come for all of us. We need to wear Tarak Biswas’s oolta chashma to understand that.

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