The spread and popularity of the internet and of social networking sites have ironically revealed how fragile the right to freedom of speech can be in India. The internet and the social networking sites are often seen, and with good reason, as the ultimate vehicles of free speech. Cyber space is assumed to be without constraints. Similarly, freedom of speech is assumed to be one of the cherished virtues of democracy. Some recent incidents in different parts of the country are forcing people to rethink both these assumptions. The latest example of the infringement of the right to free speech comes from Mumbai, where two college students, both women, were arrested and later released on bail. Their crime: one had wondered on Facebook if the city needed to shut down because of the death of its éminence grise, and the other had only liked the post. This will remind people in Calcutta of the arrest of an academic and his friend for circulating a cartoon that made fun of the chief minister. There are other instances too of individuals being arrested and harassed for expressing their views either in print or on the web.
There are a number of important issues involved here — all pertaining to the absence of robustness in India’s democratic ethos. One is the extreme insecurity and prickliness of some of India’s public figures. They think that they are above criticism and cannot be objects of fun and sarcasm. Second, and this follows from the first, is the growth of intolerance. Followers of public figures and cadre of political parties are quick to seek vengeance on those who dare to criticize. The third is the abuse of power by the police. The latter are quick to act at the behest of their political masters and use the instrument of arrest without adequate cause. The actions of the police in these cases are tantamount to a transgression of basic human rights. The right to freedom of speech is vital to the health of any democracy as it underpins debate and discussion. To violate this at any flimsy pretext is really to threaten the very fabric of democracy. This is why any infringement of this right should be noted as an ominous sign. The internet has widened the scope of the freedom to express oneself. This should be welcomed and not seen, needlessly, as a source of abuse. Criticism, like opinions, is sacred; those who are intolerant of criticism should not be in public life.