Cartoonist jailed for insulting CM – it is all Nehru’s gift to free speech

A cartoonist named Bala G was arrested on Sunday as he drew a cartoon that showed the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister and some top bureaucrats naked (their private parts were being covered with currency notes they were holding) – he was arrested under various sections pertaining to defamation and obscenity.

Bala G got bail today and has said that he will continue to draw such cartoons, but the arrest has triggered a debate on free speech. Almost on cue, many people repeated what India’s first Prime Minister is reported to have told cartoonist Shankar – Don’t spare me Shankar – suggesting that Jawaharlal Nehru didn’t have any problem with people criticizing or lampooning him.

The same phrase was repeated by a Congress spokesperson on Twitter, who tried to drag Prime Minister Narendra Modi into this debate, even though Modi has got nothing to do with the case and BJP is not even in power in Tamil Nadu:

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While this attempt to drag Modi in the current case is pitiable and does not deserve any response, it is time people realize that Pandit Nehru being some apostle of free speech is an overstatement, if not pure propaganda.

A couple of our articles (this and this) talks about how individual liberties and free speech were curbed by the Congress party right since independence, but let us focus only on some selected sins of Pandit Nehru against freedom of speech:

The first amendment – this is the original sin of Nehru, which added restrictions on fundamental rights including the freedom of speech as guaranteed in the constitution. The mention of “public order” in the amendment was especially problematic i.e. a speech could be deemed fit to be curbed if it incites a mob to indulge in violence and disturb public order.

It virtually incentivized being intolerant and violent as community. If your community tends to disturb law and order as a ‘natural reaction’ to any form of unfavorable speech, you get license to put curbs on that speech. Haven’t we seen this in action just too many times? Hail Nehru.

The first amendment was brought in 1951 after the government led by Nehru failed to censor RSS run magazine Organiser and a communist magazine named Crossroads. The RSS magazine was supposed to risk making a particular community go violent, while the communist magazine was supposed to make ordinary people go violent as it called the freedom gained by India ‘jhoothi’ (fake or a lie).

In fact, things would have been worse if Pandit Nehru had his way. What we today know as “reasonable restrictions” would have been strict restrictions because the Nehru cabinet had proposed not to include “reasonable” as a qualifier for the restrictions proposed in the first amendment. Only after some opposition from leaders like BR Ambedkar and the press, the term “reasonable” was retained.

Jail to poet and lyricist Majrooh Sultanpuri – imagine some left-leaning Bollywood lyricist terming Modi as Hitler and him being put in jail for almost two years for this ‘crime’. Apart from loud chest-beating from all quarters, it will be argued that Modi indeed is Hitler. QED.

However, no one calls Nehru a Hitler even though poet Majrooh Sultanpuri had to spent almost two years in Arthur Road jail in Mumbai (then Bombay) because he wrote a poem calling Nehru a Hitler. He wrote that poem in support of other left-leaning writers in India and Pakistan. Such is the power of control on narrative; you are paraded as a free speech hero even though you did nothing to stop a young poet from going to jail for ‘insulting’ you.

Majrooh was just 29 years old when he was put in jail by the then governor of Bombay state, and not released because he refused to tender an apology. He was abruptly released before the 1952 general elections. Perhaps Congress feared some votes lost?

Pressure to discontinue a newspaper column – the supposedly Shankar’s cartoon loving Chacha Nehru was not so fond of editorials it seems. It is alleged that a column in The Times of India written under the pseudonym “Vivek” by a civil servant A. D. Gorwala was discontinued at Nehru’s insistence, for it was too critical of him. The incident also highlights how ‘free’ the press has really been in India.

This tactic of pressurizing media houses to drop critical voices has been a Nehru’s legacy that was adopted by Indira (‘asked to bend but the press crawled’ during Emergency) and Rajiv too (his proposed bill to punish newspapers for articles they publish) and has continued till date.

Among the Lutyens circle, it is believed that as soon as Congress returned to power in form of UPA in 2004, it pressurized a leading media house to drop at least two top journalists whom they suspected to be close to the NDA government, for they used to get exclusive scoops from the government in run up to the elections. Although the journalists were not fired, the media house had to oblige by putting them in less important roles.

Movie banned for ‘historical distortion’ – no no, we are neither talking about Tamil movie Mersal (not banned) nor Hindi movie Padmavati, but English movie Nine Hours to Rama, which was a fictional narrative about Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination produced in 1962.

The ‘historical distortions’ (well, it was supposed to be fictional narrative) was condemned by Pandit Nehru and the movie, as well as the novel on which it was based, was banned in India. While historical distortions were the stated reasons, it is believed that the book and the movie was banned as it exposed security lapses leading to Gandhiji’s murder.

Numerous books banned and censorship – Lest this article becomes too long, readers are advised to read this Twitter thread by scientist and columnist Anand Ranganathan, which documents instances of dozens of books and movies banned when Jawaharlal Nehru was at the helm, and he personally approved many such bans.

Many of these books, and some movies, were banned as they were not in alignment with Nehru’s views on international politics or policies. For example, the book “Captive Kashmir” that was banned after Nehru read a copy himself and found it unpalatable.

So not only the clueless Congress spokespersons on Twitter, but numerous Nehru bhakts are advised to go slow on the “Don’t spare me Shankar” rhetoric, for Nehru clearly did not spare many who disagreed with him, and he is no icon of free speech or free press.

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