The First Amendment in the United States of America protects constitutionally the right to freedom of speech and expression of its citizens. Under no circumstances can governments in the United States prosecute an individual for an opinion. Ironically, the First Amendment in India had exactly the polar opposite effect. It was brought in to curb the free speech rights of its citizens.
The first Prime Minister of India, who is again ironically hailed as a beacon of liberalism, was insistent on curbing the freedom of the press. According to a report published by The New York Times on the 17th of May, 1951, Nehru was steadfast in his commitment towards curbing free speech.
Nehru claimed that the First Amendment was necessitated by the “vulgarity, indecency and falsehood” that the press was supposedly indulging in. In his view, it was, therefore, necessary to empower the State to crack down on newspapers to ensure that the “main purposes of the Constitution are not defeated”.
Jawaharlal Nehru said, “It has become a matter of the deepest distress to me to see the way in which the less responsible news sheets are being conducted… not injuring me on this House much, but poisoning the minds of the younger generation and degrading their mental integrity and moral standards.”
“It is not for me a political problem but a moral problem,” Nehru said before opining that it had become “impossible to distinguish what is true and what is false.” Here we see the Indian Prime Minister anointing himself as the moral arbiter of the country. Of course, the problem for him was entirely political as he and his party were coming under intense criticism but since it would not be feasible to curb free speech rights of citizens on the basis of his personal predicament, he externalised the issue and presented it as a grave moral crisis.
It is known that at the time the Prime Minister himself and his coterie of ministers were facing intense criticism from the media as well as his political opponents in the form of both communists and the Hindu Mahasabha. Therefore, he decided to use the state machinery to crackdown on his political opponents in order to ensure that his power remains unchallenged.
Stalwarts such as Shyama Prasad Mookerjee said that nothing had occurred thus far that justified the curbing of the freedom of the press. But Jawaharlal Nehru would have none of it. He proceeded with his measures and ensured the enactment of the amendment of the First Amendment that would severely restrict the freedom of the press.
The Indian Government lists in its statement of object and reasons section regarding the enactment of the amendment, “The citizen’s right to freedom of speech and expression guaranteed by article 19(1)(a) has been held by some courts to be so comprehensive as not to render a person culpable even if he advocates murder and other crimes of violence. In other countries with written constitutions, freedom of speech and of the press is not regarded as debarring the State from punishing or preventing abuse of this freedom. The citizen’s right to practise any profession or to carry on any occupation, trade or business conferred by article 19(1)(g) is subject to reasonable restrictions which the laws of the State may impose “in the interests of general public”.”
The First Amendment with regards to the freedom of speech and expression of an individual “imposes reasonable restrictions on the exercise of the right conferred by the said sub-clause in the interests of the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency or morality, or in relation to contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence.”
The enactment of the First Amendment, predictably, led to the persecution of those critical of Jawaharlal Nehru. Poet and lyricist Majrooh Sultanpuri was arrested and spent a year in prison for a poem that was critical of the first Prime Minister of India. He also allegedly got a Timjes of India column discontinued because it was too critical of him.
Since then, the Congress party has regularly curbed the freedom of speech and expression of citizens and the press in order to maintain its hegemonic control over India. The most notable of it was, of course, the Emergency of 1975 under Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, however, there have been numerous other occasion on which the party has arrested editors and journalists simply because they were too critical of the party.
The desire of the Congress party to control the the press is still very much alive to this day, even at a time when they have lost all relevance at the national level. For instance, senior Congress leader Kapil Sibal said recently that the press is not entitled to free speech rights and implored the Judiciary to regulate the media and social media. The reasons provided were the same that Nehru gave all those years ago, that they are apparently responsible for sowing the seeds of division within the country.
The Congress party in its election manifesto for the 2019 General Elections had also promised to regulate social media. It appears that they were promising the return of section 66A, an extremely unpopular move during the UPA regime. Like Nehru, the Congress party also claims that all of this is to preserve the ‘moral integrity’ of the country but in reality, it is only an attempt to shield themselves from criticism and preserve their power.