Personal liberty, freedom of speech, and Gandhi’s Philosophy

Satyakam Ray

The famous phrase “See no evil, hear no evil, Speak no evil” first appeared in Japan in the 17th century. Mahatma Gandhi’s visual metaphor of the three monkeys, with one of them covering his eyes, the second his mouth, and the third his ears, was popularized later and adopted as the message of peace and tolerance. In today’s context, the symbolism of peace holds much value concerning the concept of freedom of speech and liberty.

A lot has been discussed about those two concepts in recent times. The editor-in-chief of a popular news channel, held in jail in a suicide abetment case, was released after the intervention of the Supreme Court. 

“Whatever be his ideology, least I don’t even watch his channel, but if in this case constitutional court’s do not interfere today, we are traveling the path of destruction undeniably,” Justice Chandrachud said, adding, “the point is can you deny personal liberty of a person on these allegations.”

According to the judgment, “If you don’t like it, don’t watch it.” The statement referred to the alleged TV entertainer’s prime-time TV show. The logic behind the judgment is to the point as it directly validates Gandhi’s 3-monkey symbolism of “See no evil, hear no evil, Speak no evil.”

Comedian Kunal Kamra criticized the supreme court heavily for the selective fast-tracking of the case. The criticism was harsh, but it indeed pointed out the glaring errors made by the court in the recent past. Many eminent journalists, politicians, scholars, and activists are languishing in jail for so many months due to delays in listing the case, and subsequently, injustice has happened to them. But when the loudmouth TV anchor approached the court for interim bail, the listing was swiftly done within 1-2 days. One might wonder whether personal liberty and freedom of speech only pertain to the selected persons in the society, often those close to the present regime.

The Constitutional Law regarding freedom of speech, contempt: The Constitution of India provides the right of freedom, given in article 19, to guarantee individual rights that were considered vital by the constitution’s framers. The right to liberty in Article 19 guarantees the freedom of speech and expression as one of its six freedoms. The constitution of India does not explicitly mention the freedom of the press. Freedom of the press is implied in Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution.

Contempt of court: The constitutional right to freedom of speech would not allow a person to contempt the courts. Contempt of Court’s expression has been defined in Section 2 of the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971. Contempt of court refers to civil contempt or criminal contempt under the Act. But judges do not have any general immunity from criticism of their judicial conduct, provided that it is made in good faith and is genuine criticism and not any attempt to impair the administration of justice. // source-Wikipedia

Case of Prashant Bhushan: In the past, senior supreme court advocate and activist Prashant Bhushan was penalized Rs1 for his tweets regarding the CJI of India and the functioning of the judiciary in the last six years. The case was in the limelight since it opened the floodgates of discussions about the fundamental right of citizens- freedom of speech.

When do we cross the line?

There’s a thin line between the privilege of freedom of expression and the abuse of fundamental rights. The abusers can be dealt with the provisions of contempt of the court and criminal proceedings. But it’s interesting to note that there’s no clear-cut definition of the scope of freedom of speech and how far one can go. The judges decide whether the case is contempt or not depending upon the ambit of individual cases. Even the judgment varies from judge to judge. One can’t pointedly draw the line (Laxman Rekha) between the right to speech and contempt. Hate speeches made by various political leaders also come under the purview of abuse of freedom of speech. In common parlance, these judiciary concepts are very abstruse to grasp, and hence, people tend to remain quiet when any contempt proceedings happen in court.

Gandhi’s Philosophy: The Gandhian philosophy says an individual must always strive to uphold the truth, in the service of which he or she is justified to disobey laws (or norms) as long as he or she is willing to suffer the punishment for doing so. He did it in non-violent ways to throw colonial oppressors out of India. He disagreed with various governance and policies of the Britishers, so he carried out movements against them. Eventually, he was successful, and the truth over falsehood was won.

Similarly, Non-exploitation(both of others and own) is a central Buddhist principle. Wrong speech is discouraged not only because it hurts other people but also because the speaker taints their soul with anger, hatred, greed, and delusion. The Buddhist idea coincides with Gandhian philosophy, which advocates inculcating stability and tolerance among all.

“I want freedom for the full expression of my personality.”-Gandhi

So, next time before speaking or tweeting anything, one must keep in mind the philosophy of Gandhi and the teachings of Buddha. The truth must be upheld, but using harsh words should be a strict no-no. If one person wants to criticize and showcase the legit drawbacks, it’s fine if it doesn’t sound harsh or vulgar.

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