On Tuesday, October 23rd security and defence expert Abhijit Iyer Mitra was arrested by Odisha police for his alleged derogatory remarks on Odiya culture and the Sun Temple. As of now, he has been charged under IP63C Sections 294, 295A, 153A, 500, 506 and Section 67 of the Information Technology Act. All of this after Abhijit Iyer has already apologised unconditionally to the legislators on Odisha for his comments.
Frederick Douglass had once said “To suppress free speech is a double wrong. It violates the rights of the hearer as well as those of the speaker.” Without the freedom to speak every other right makes no sense. If you cannot express yourself freely does anything really matter?
The episode of the jailing of Abhijit Iyer has also showcased another dark side of the entire debate when it comes to freedom of expression in India. One can look across the political spectrum and unfortunately we will find a handful of people who will stand consistently for the average citizens right to speak freely.
Every discussion about free speech is laced with whataboutery and over emotionalism. If there was a T-Shirt that could be made to explain the state of free speech in India it can be summed like this “I stand for your right to speak freely until you say what I want to hear”.
This is the state of affairs across the political spectrum. On odd days the left wing of India cries there is an assault on free speech and on even days the non-left of India cries there is an assault on free speech. The cry depends on who is the person that is being oppressed and what is the nature of their speech. If the speech is critical of Islam we know who will stand up for that type of speech. If the speech is critical of Hinduism we know who likes that kind of speech.
But that is not how free speech works. Freedom of speech cuts across the board (other than a direct call to violence). It can either be enjoyed by each and every member across the board or it cannot be enjoyed by anyone. And we are at a tipping point in this country. Year after year the state of affairs is getting worse when it comes to freedom of expression in India. We cannot be selective in our support for free speech. Because, when we become selective we give the state a direct pathway to suppress our rights. In the fight for free speech, the words don’t matter, what matters is the right to basically utter those words.
Today it is Abhijit Iyer Mitra, but tomorrow that could easily be any one of us. What has happened with Abhijit should be a wake-up call for everyone. The state cannot have so much power where it can basically lock someone up for something as subjective as “offending feelings”.
If you cannot get over your innate anger because Abhijit insulted your beloved temple or your beloved state just do one simple thought experiment, change the name of accused from Abhijit Iyer to yourself and imagine how it feels. If you fight for the rights of free speech only for the people you admire you are not really for free speech. You basically like selective speech. By allowing the Odisha government to trample an average citizens rights we are basically emboldening this climate of suppressing freedom of expression.
It does not matter if you are left winger or a right winger or from the cult of spaghetti monster. Do not let the government of Odisha destroy the rights of one of our fellow citizens. Speak up, and let the honourable Chief Minister of Odisha know that what has happened in his state is wrong and unethical. I would like to end with the words of someone I have a lot of socio-political disagreements with.
Glenn Greenwald had once said, “You can’t cheer when political officials punish the expression of views you dislike and then expect to be taken seriously when you wrap yourself in the banner of free speech in order to protest state punishment of views you like and share.”
Wake up and smell the coffee. Today it is Abhijit Iyer, tomorrow it could be you and I. Never let the State no matter which political party you support have so much control over your life.