India is not a country known for its laws on Free Speech. It began in 1950 when the then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, brought in the First Amendment to the Indian Constitution against “abuse of freedom of speech and expression”. This was in response to an article which was critical on Nehruvian policies.
The Indian Penal Code makes matters worse. Section 294 of the IPC mandates that any kind of public obscenity can be punished with upto 3 months in jail.
The only to change a law in our country is to wait for our MPs to sit up and take notice. Unfortunately that is not quite in our hands. Free Speech is hardly a priority for our lawmakers. In fact, they would want more curbs on speech!
The next best thing is to make the courts hear your plea and force them into getting a favourable opinion on a draconian law through logical debates. This can spur the Parliament into changing the law itself.
A classic example of this was Section 377 of the IPC, which criminalised sexual activities “against the order of nature”, arguably including homosexual acts. The section was declared unconstitutional by the Delhi High Court in 2009. This judgement was later overturned by the Supreme Court, but it was a moment which made everyone sit up and question a colonial law. The battle continues there.
But in the case of Freedom of Speech, many of “activists” often take the easy route and don’t prefer to fight for their case. Even stalwarts like MF Hussain did not stand up to the ones who he “offended” but chose to run away to another country instead of fighting his court battles.
AIB had a golden chance to set it right. They had the financial might, backing from the big guns of Bollywood, and support of the people. AIB are arguably the most successful stand-up comedians in India. Even though some people found their jokes offensive, unfunny or repetitive, most people defended their right to say those jokes. If not them, who else will stand up for their fraternity? and for Freedom of Speech as a whole?
As we have said earlier, laws in the case of Freedom of Expression can never be precise and objective. This is where precedents help. A court ruling in the AIB issue could have served as a source of support to numerous artistes who are bullied by people who take “offense”.
But running away doesn’t help. It only worsens the case and makes interpretations of the law even more unfriendly to Freedom of Speech. AIB still have time to buck up and make a difference and go into the History books. Lets see if they bite the bullet!