The Taste with Vir | Supreme Court vs Sudarshan TV: Free speech isn’t setting fire to a communally complex nation
Vir Sanghvi writes, “The government has finally taken a stand. In what may be a disappointment to those of its supporters who were sympathetic to Sudarshan TV’s case, the government went to the Supreme Court on Wednesday and said what should have been obvious to anyone who is familiar with the law.”Updated: Sep 24, 2020, 17:33 IST
When the Supreme Court first stopped the telecast of a Sudarshan TV programme which purported to show how Muslims were “infiltrating” government services, various people who might loosely be termed supporters of the government took to social media to express support for Sudarshan TV on grounds of freedom of speech. Significantly, the government itself said nothing. When the Supreme Court complained about offensive content on news TV in general, the government did not attempt to deny that such content existed. Instead it pushed the court to look at social media instead where the content was even more offensive. Now, the government has finally taken a stand. In what may be a disappointment to those of its supporters who were sympathetic to Sudarshan TV’s case, the government went to the Supreme Court on Wednesday (23 September) and said what should have been obvious to anyone who is familiar with the law.
The 1994 Cable TV Act, which is the basis of much of the regulation of TV, clearly states that no programme can be carried which “contains attacks on religions or communities or visuals or words that are contemptuous of religious groups or which promote communal attitudes.” You can disagree with the law. But there it is. You cannot vilify Muslims under the law, no matter what your views on free speech are. The government eventually followed the law. It told the Court that it had sent a show cause notice to Sudarshan TV “giving detailed facts” on how the contents of the show were “against the programme code.” So if the Supreme Court and the government both agree that the programme went against lawful standards of controlling expressions of religious hatred, then there is not much more to be said, is there?
Well, actually there is. The fact that this programme should have been scheduled, that the Supreme Court had to intervene to prevent its telecast and that the government took its time to come out against it, tells us something about the state of today’s India. As the Supreme Court pointed out, India does not have a First Amendment granting nearly absolute freedom to the media as the US does.
There is a reason for this. India was born amidst Partition-linked communal bloodshed and when the framers of our Constitution sat down to write the laws, this could not have been forgotten. Around that period much of the country was a tinderbox so nobody wanted to grant absolute freedom of expression for fear that it might lead to incitement and a resurgence of communal violence.There are those, like me, who feel that the Congress regime which ruled India in the first decade after Independence, went too far in the other direction. In its endeavour to maintain peace and protect law and order, it lost sight of larger liberal principles and was much too willing to ban plays, books and movies on the grounds that they may cause offence to religious communities.This trend continued in the decades that followed.
Obviously, the ban on the Satanic Verses was a mistake. But all too often we forget that the don’t-give-offence principle has been misused time and time again for the silliest reasons. The film of Jesus Christ Superstar was banned in India and some states agreed to even ban The Da Vinci Code. There is a crucial distinction here and it is one which we have lost sight of. If a Hindu, a Christian or a Muslim is offended by something I write about his religion, then it is fine to tell him not to read it. That’s simple enough.
But there is a second category of speech. It is not about say, Hindus offending Christian or Muslims. It is about Hindus inciting other Hindus to hate Muslims. It is about Muslims encouraging other Muslims to resort to violence. It was the second category of speech that the framers of our Constitution should have focused on, given the bloody background of Partition. Sadly we have lost sight of that distinction. Turning Hindus against Muslims (or vice-versa) is hardly the same thing as offending people with a painting of Saraswati or with the content of The Satanic Verses. All too often we confuse giving offence (which should, in most circumstances, be fine) with inciting hatred.
Full marks then to the Supreme Court for reminding us of that distinction. “You cannot target one community and brand them in a particular manner,” the Court said, terming the Sudarshan TV show an “attempt to vilify Muslims.” It added : “The anchor’s grievance is that a particular group is gaining entry into the civil services. How insidious is this? ….Such allegations without factual basis, how can they be allowed? Can such programmes be allowed in a free society?” Well, the government has finally answered those questions. It agrees that such programmes are against the law. Though God knows, it took its time making this clear. The fact that the Supreme Court and the government are finally united on this issue should set a precedent for the future. Let’s admit that many of the previous bans on books and restrictions on movies were silly and uncalled for. Let’s also concede that they distracted us from the real issue.
That issue is the propagation of hatred and the incitement of communities against each other. Sudarshan TV is just one example. There are other channels and the other media --- including the press --- where it is treated as legitimate to spread hatred. Relations between communities are now at the most delicate stage they have been in several decades. If we are to stay peaceful and united as a nation, then we must call out the instigators and silence the hatred. Free speech, as the cliche goes, does not include the right to shout ‘fire’ in a crowded theatre. And it shouldn’t include the right to set fire to a communally complex nation.
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