Free speech in India: Between the bullet, baton, and gavel

Freedom of speech and expression in India is balanced precariously between the ever-present threat of direct, physical attacks from both security forces and social vigilante groups on the one hand, and the reassurance of protection from higher judicial authorities on the other. But the scales seem tipped in favor of the former.

In India’s first-ever exhaustive tracking of threats to free speech in the country, The Free Speech Hub has recorded, since January 2010, at least 11 instances of attacks on journalists and one on a media house; eight instances of bans, restrictions, or regulation of media; seven instances of the censorship of books, films, and television channels; and at least nine complaints and protests by social and political groups against articles, films, plays, or even comments and opinions voiced by prominent citizens.

In the first quarter of this year, well-known artist M. F. Husain decided to give up his Indian citizenship, prominent writers like Paul Zachariah and Arundhati Roy were attacked for their views—the former being physically assaulted—two people lost their lives as they protested the publication of an article on the burqa, actor Shahrukh Khan was the unexpected defender of free speech when he refused to apologize to the political party Shiv Sena, which called for a ban on his movie My Name is Khan following his remarks on inviting Pakistani cricketers to India, and two political activists were charged with sedition for their writings.

Most of these incidents made headlines and took up hours of airtime on television channels. Not up for public scrutiny, however, was the impunity with which security forces across the country used the baton and even bullets to rein in what they perceive as the recalcitrant media. The repeated targeting of the media and the lack of accountability by those who do so, time after time, bodes ill for freedom of speech and expression.

Nothing demonstrates this more than the savage beating of Gowhar Bhat, a journalist in Greater Kashmir, by security forces in Srinagar, Jammu, and Kashmir, on April 26, barely a week before the global observance of World Press Freedom Day on May 3. Bhat was covering a demonstration of the opposition People’s Democratic Party. His protestations that he was a journalist cut no ice with the security forces that beat him more severely when he tried to read the nameplate of a police officer in order to identify him.

Vigilante gangs, owing allegiance to social and political groups, have protested any perceived threat to their world-view by attacking writers, theater performances, media houses, posters, and even mobile phone companies! While in some instances they were sufficiently held back by strong responses from state governments, the tendency of the state to look the other way in others only gave these groups a field day.

These attacks, both by security forces and social and political groups, attain significance in the backdrop of the continuing attempts by the state to restrict, regulate, debar, or monitor a range of expression—whether it is television coverage of bomb blast attacks, curbs on advertisements, or the introduction of laws, schemes, and mechanisms that have the potential to compromise privacy and increase routine surveillance without any stated safeguards.

There are some bright spots, however, in the state of freedom of speech and expression in India. One is the response of the judiciary towards SLAPP (Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation) suits and complaints against the exercise of free speech. While the Supreme Court has decried the harassment meted out to M. F. Husain and dismissed all but three cases against him, it has also dismissed complaints against actress Khushboo for airing her opinion on pre-marital sex and come out strongly against hate speech. 

The Free Speech Tracker has been monitoring attacks and threats to freedom of speech and expression in India since January 2010.  For the complete list and further information, visit The Free Speech Hub.

Geeta Seshu is coordinator of The Free Speech Hub.