The case of music composer Vishal Dadlani, whom the Supreme Court recently refused relief, has highlighted, for the nth time, the threats to freedom of expression. The ruse to curb free speech is familiar—hurt sentiments.
This is despite the fact that Digambar Jain guru Tarun Sagar himself doesn’t feel hurt or offended. The Haryana government had invited Sagar to address the state Assembly; the Jain monk, as is the wont of Digambars, appeared naked on August 26 in the Assembly. What is germane here is not whether it was proper in a secular country to invite a pontiff to sermonize a legislative Assembly, or whether appearing unclothed is okay, or whether his remarks were appropriate; what is pertinent is whether a citizen has a right to express his opinion or not.
Dadlani tweeted, “That dude has the same education, as he has clothes on. None. I’ve no problem with nudity. I have a problem with religion in governance.” And “People actually trying to defend the colossal idiocy of some naked monk, addressing Haryana assembly, telling women how to live! UNREAL!”
When there was an outrage, the music composer and former Aam Aadmi Party leader was quick to apologize—several times. “I apologize if I’ve upset Jain feelings. The intent was to ridicule the merger of religion & governance, and not any religion in particular.” Again, “I’m sorry to have offended you and your beliefs too, Sir. My intent was not to hurt anyone. Spoke without thinking.” And again, “I’m happy to apologize, as long as people can see that mixing religion in governance is a serious problem!”
It is interesting to note that Dadlani did not anger or offend the Jain monk who said, “He [Dadlani] just knows that the Digambar Sadhus remain naked. He does not know about Indian culture. Had he known about that, he would not have made such a comment. There is no question of apology as I am not angry with him.”
So, the question is why are there police complaints against Dadlani? The charge against him is that he has hurt the religious sentiments of some people.
In our country, when somebody cries that their sentiments have been hurt because of some statement, movie, song, book, etc., often people start debating whether there is any merit in the protests. Were sentiments really hurt? Are the demands made for a ban just?
The real questions, which nobody asks, are: How valid are the demands that are based on hurt sentiments? And how legitimate are the grounds on which various works of art have been banned and many voices silenced? Let’s examine the questions from a legal point of view. The Indian Constitution imposes “reasonable restrictions” on the Fundamental Right to freedom of expression.
“Reasonable restrictions” appended to the Right to Freedom of Speech and Expression in Article 19 (a) empowered the State to curb this Fundamental Right whenever it wished to. Restrictions can be imposed for the maintenance 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.”
I believe that these restrictions are an affront to democracy. Be that as it may, even these are themselves purported to be “reasonable.” In other words, liberty can be curtailed only if there are reasonable grounds to believe that it would harm national security, jeopardize friendly relations with foreign countries, disturb public order, offend decency or morality, contemn court, leading to defamation or occasioning incitement to an offence. Nowhere is it mentioned, or implied, that hurting the sentiments of somebody can be a ground for curtailment of the freedom of expression.
The grounds restricting the freedom of expression have to be reasonable and not sentimental, not only because it is the Constitutional position but also because reasons can be objectively debated, while sentiments can’t be. Merriam Webster describes “sentiment” as “an attitude, thought, or judgment prompted by feeling”, “predilection”, “a specific view or notion”, “opinion”, “an idea colored by emotion”, etc. It is crystal clear that the defining feature of sentiments is subjectivity.
The law and public administration, on the other hand, are molded by objective realities. Poetry is to sentiments and subjectivity what political philosophy is to statecraft, jurisprudence, and objectivity. Plato said in the Republic that there is an old quarrel between philosophy and poetry. According to him, if poetry is allowed in its ideal state, “not law and the reason of mankind, which by common consent have ever been deemed best, but pleasure and pain will be the rulers in our state.” This was the reason that he banished poets from his ideal state. The great philosopher went overboard over poets, but his disdain for sentimentalism is well-grounded: sentiments, sentimentalism, and hurting-the-sentiments babble can have no place in the formal framework of a liberal democracy.
But, unfortunately, in our country this is happening routinely. This is having a chilling effect on free speech as well as on well-meaning joiners. Dadlani, for instance, has already quit AAP and politics in the wake of the instant row. The legal action against him is a typical case of strategic lawsuit against public participation or SLAPP.
The sphere of liberty has just shrunk further.