An idea and Democracy – Ravi Shankar Jha

Article 19 of the constitution was envisaged as the bulwark of democratic India with the intention to promote free speech and expression which shall strengthen the democratic process in the country for only such free speech may bring fresh ideas in the public domain. And ideas to a democracy are as important as air for human body. The richness of democracy is proportionate to the variety of ideas subsisting in its system and the way such ideas are debated, contested or engaged with. It is in this sense that the understanding of democracy has come a long way from government for the people, of the people and by the people to government of ideas. At the most basic level the choices that people make in a democracy is a choice between competing ideas. Starting from political parties organized on ideological lines to administrative policies framed on some conception of society based on a particular idea, everything is a choice between ideas. So, for a democracy to function in prime health, such choices should be highly informed and well reasoned and for a choice to be informed and well reasoned there has to be unbridled flow of information which presents before the citizen all possible perspective to examine an issue. John Rawls captures this essence of democracy in appropriate words when he says:

 “The definitive idea for deliberative democracy is the idea of deliberation itself. When citizens deliberate, they exchange views and debate their supporting reasons concerning public political questions.”

Article 19 as provided under the constitution, thus provides ample protection from any infringement on the right of free speech and expression by the state. But, as Christopher Hitchens has very correctly said, in recent times the real threat to free speech is not from the state but from the people inhabiting the state. The weight of popular opinion has almost held the free speech to ransom and suppressed it in various garbs. Unfortunately, the protection of Article 19 does not extend to infringement by popular sovereignty. Intolerance for opposing ideas is fast becoming a norm which threatens to undermine entire democratic process. In the words of Christopher Hitchens, the right of others to free expression is part of my own and if someone’s voice is silenced, then I am deprived of the right to hear. Such intolerance has reared its head ever so frequently in the recent past. Starting from arrest of cartoonist in Bengal to Amit Trivedi’s arrest, there have been numerous instances of suppression of opposite ideas rather than any engagement with such ideas at an intellectual level which shall qualify as a more appropriate democratic response. The advantage of a democratic response is that even though the idea in question is eventually proved wrong but the process of engagement leads to a more enlightened citizenry. Engaging with an idea is a self rewarding process more akin to snowball phenomenon where one idea leads to another and another to some other and the entire exercise eventually leads to a better democracy.

However, such a democratic response to opposing ideas is not always politically expedient and therefore often compromised in the garb of larger public interest. A book is banned for supposedly being opposed to a religion and the author is almost banished from the literary circuit pleading public sentiments, another movie is banned on similar grounds, a cartoonist is banned for some apparently innocuous cartoons, the instances of intolerance for any opposing idea is endless. The paradox in such responses cannot be starker. For what is being done for protecting public interest is in fact biggest harm to public in a democracy as they are denied access to an idea and thereby stand less informed. If indeed an idea is wrong then it shall not survive the scrutiny on such examination which proper engagement will inevitably bring with it. But in the process of that engagement the democracy is bound to get healthier as the debate will make it one idea richer. If what Satanic Verses says is wrong then let the same be proved on an intellectual level. Let the opposition counter the views proffered intellectually through another book and present both the versions to the citizenry and let them make a choice. If what Vishwaroopam attempts to show is wrong then let the same to be contested through a democratic medium. The government of the day cannot hide behind the excuse of law & order to shun its responsibility. Article 19 only contemplated infringement of free speech at the hands of government as it was assumed that infringement by any other source shall be duly addressed by the government of the day. It is the duty of the government to ensure law & order and not make it an excuse for suppression of ideas for which it is mandated by default in the democratic set up. No idea may be suppressed on the ground that someone else’s sentiments might be hurt for almost everything that one says or does, hurts someone or the other. In such a scenario it cannot also be argued that expression of one particular idea hurts a community or a section of society as it is not only the right of that section which stands to be considered but also the right to hear and expression of millions of other who would like know about the idea. In such a scenario, democracy must provide a platform for such ideas to be expressed and if considered wrong by a group of people then the same to be contested at the ideological level. The undemocratic response of suppressing the idea can only lead to a day where almost every idea is held ransom to the whims and fancies of a handful, leading to a complete destruction of the fabric of democracy, so carefully woven and preserved by the people of this country.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this:
Visit Us On FacebookVisit Us On TwitterVisit Us On YoutubeVisit Us On Google PlusCheck Our Feed