Freedom of expression is enshrined in the Constitution of India as a fundamental right under Article 19(1)(a). Freedom of expression means the freedom to express not only one’s own views but also the views of others. Freedom of expression is very important for a democratic set-up. In the Indian democratic system, the people have the fundamental right of expressing their ideas and to comment or criticize within the constitutional framework.
Since ancient times, intellectuals, artists, writers, philosophers have been fighting for the freedom of expression. Socrates, Jesus Christ, Galileo, Joan of Arc-all-sacrificed their lives for the sake of this freedom. During the British rule in India, freedom fighters expressed their views openly against the tyranny of foreign ruler. British liberal philosopher, J.S. Mill, in his book ‘On Liberty’ said that there should be no limitations on the freedom of expression of one’s opinions and ideas. Karl Popper in his book, ‘Open Society and its Enemies’ criticized the concept of a closed society where we cannot express our views freely.
Freedom of Art is very important for a liberal society. Art is a specific form of social consciousness and human activity, which reflects reality in artistic images. It is one of the most important means of aesthetical comprehension and portrayal of the world. It is, for this reason, that man, his social links and relations, the life and activity of people in concrete historical conditions are always in the center of any work of art. The specific methods of reproducing reality and artistic tasks, as well as the material means of portraying artistic images, determine the specific types of art. Thus, in literature the aesthetic through the visual images of the color, in sculpture through three-dimensional forms, in music through sound intonations, in theater and cinema through the characterization of the actors. Art should develop freely, enabling “a hundred flowers to bloom” and should not be influenced by some artistic dogmas of a particular political authority. ‘High art‘ by exceptionally gifted individuals should be encouraged as a source of enjoyment.
In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, idealist aestheticians advocated the absolute nature of art, which supposedly aims only at purely aesthetic pleasure i.e., “Art for Art’s sake“. This leads to the claim that the artist is free of society and bears no responsibility to the people. This view leads to extreme individualism and subjectivism.
Artistic freedom is vital to both the cultural and political health of our society. But, this freedom is threatened when art is challenged because of the content, message or viewpoint. A challenge may be raised by the disagreement with the perceived message. It is the result of negative public reaction and may come from the general public, representatives of organizations, government officials and also from within the arts community.
Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, Rohinton Mistry’s Such A Long Journey, A.K. Ramanujan’s Three Hundred Ramayanas, Joseph Lelyveld’s Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle with India are some of the important books, which are banned by our government and these books are mostly banned without reading them. The hurting of religious sensibilities creates a problem, when someone expresses his own views and does not care about the sentiment of the particular religious groups. Naked Saraswati or a nude Bharat Mata painted by M.F. Hussian were banned on the ground that it hurt the religious sentiments of Hindus. Pradip Dalvi’s play Godse was banned on the ground that it hurt the image of Mahatma Gandhi and justifies his assassination. UP Government banned the play ‘My Sandal’, clearly a satire on chief minister Mayawati by Mukesh Verma. The screening of ‘Da Vinci Code‘ was prohibited in our country.
The audio-visual media, especially television and the cinema, are showing a growing number of films depicting sex, violence some of which are extremely gory. Though it is not easy to establish a direct correlation between cinema, TV viewing and violence, there can be no denying that such depiction has had ill effects on the immature, adolescent, the unemployed or school dropouts. Sometimes, the censor board does not perform its duty properly.
Nowadays, it has become fashionable for artists, writers, claiming artistic ‘license’ to brazenly insult Islam, Christianity, and other religions, but there is no such license. While an analytic critique of religion is fine, vilification and abuse of religion are not.
The problem with the manner, in which the debate over intolerance and artistic expression are conducted in India, is what we confuse too many different components. It is easy enough to condemn violence, authoritarian overreaction or conservative definitions of obscenity. This is a debate that is as old as art itself. It is probably right to say that a man is free to paint or write whatever he likes. but, is he free to exhibit it in public? If he is then why do we have obscenity laws? why do we have a film censor board? Clearly, there is a distinction between private expression and public exhibition. Hindu temples are full of nude representations of gods and goddesses, it does not follow that there should be no limits to the artistic expression of religious figures. Paintings if naked Saraswati or visual representation of Prophet Muhammad are cases of hurting religious sentiments. Hurting religious sentiments is strictly condemned.
However, it is also not justified that anybody can destruct the works of art. It is a clear sign of growing intolerance. In a democracy, there are civilized ways of expressing one’s dissent. There is a need to educate people on forms of protest that are consonant with a liberal society.
Our problem in India is that we have no standards, no barriers and no sense of what is acceptable and what is not. No principles are ever discussed, no guidelines are drawn up, instead each time a sensitive issue erupts, we engage in the same debate. Pakistan has a blasphemy law, under which anyone who speaks ill of Islam and Prophet Muhammad commits a crime and faces the death penalty. Several liberal-minded leaders in Pakistan want to change this blasphemy, which is necessary for the protection of religious minorities.
In our country, a new phenomenon has developed which is described as cultural policing, which is monitored not only by the party in power but by communal or non-secular parties, who decides what is good or bad for our culture. Beating the girls in nightclubs and disrupting the Valentine’s Day celebration are some of the handwork’s of communal parties.
In the last few years, some extremist groups and parties have become self-appointed guardians of morality in our country. It is they, who want to enforce what people can or cannot read, which film or play to be censored or which performer can or cannot appear on stage, or what an artist can exhibit.
This trend should not be tolerated, and our judiciary in our country has been a source of protection of freedom of expression. Freedom of expression is recognized universally as Human Right – a basic right of every human being irrespective of color, race, gender or status. In a free society, which boasts of democracy, it is the Constitution that should be the supreme law, not fatwas or edicts issued by cultural vigilantes. Anything less would be a betrayal of the liberal, secular values we hold dear.