Arun Shourie the noted journalist, author and former Minister in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee Government, took on prominent writer/actor Girish Karnad at length during the Bangalore Literature Festival on the topic of whether India was gagged and bound by illiberal laws.
Both Arun Shourie and Girish Karnad were on a panel discussion titled – A Country Gagged and bound? moderated by Arshia Sattar with Shubha Mudgal, Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi, Joe D’ Cruz, Rajiv Malhotra, Swapan Dasgupta and Sankarshan Thakur also participating as panelists.
Reacting to arguments that India’s laws were illiberal, Shourie said that because of the Constitution of India, we are one of the freest countries in the world and among the freest societies in the world. There will always be individuals who will take offence to anyone but in general because of our culture and because of great diversity and size of our country, freedom has been sustained.
The Ramon Magsaysay Award winner added that our Constitution limits the ability of the State to put restrictions up to the limit of reasonable restrictions and it is the courts that will decide what is reasonable and what is not. The Indian Supreme Court and most of the High Courts too have been staunch protectors of Freedom of Speech. Also any Government that has raised hand against free speech or free media had had to withdraw the hand. Shourie drew at that point in time the attention to Jagannath Mishra’s Press Bill and that it had to be withdrawn. He went on to add that the same thing happened when the late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi tried to shut us up with the Defamation Bill. He said that this doesn’t happen just because of the courts but because people feel that free speech is a must for complete freedom.
Shourie added in his inimitable style that when it comes to social media, yes, the licence is used to cross the limits and people are trolled but for that he said that one has to be thick skinned. As he felt that if one tries to control what is said on the social media which is such a loose medium, then one will again have to allow the Government to take things in its hands and this would mean more restrictions. He shared his own example saying that people have created fake Twitter account in his name and also a Facebook page. He added that he doesn’t look at all that is put up there and also requested people not to trust information supplied through such accounts as coming from him.
He quoted Balasaheb Thackeray who used to say that remote of the TV is in our hands, so, if we see something being telecasted which is not of our taste we can always switch it off. He had an excellent advice for the supporters of Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the social media. He said that it would be best if they stuck to the facts and get trapped by the tactics of defaming others that is used by the supporters of the others. He said that facts are on our side and it would be best to use them to counter the trolls. He requested supporters of the Prime Minister not to abuse those who do not support or say nasty things about the Prime Minister. He said that abusing those who have counter view of the cause that one supports only causes harm to the issue they are supporting.
All reforms offend. Don’t believe all that you read on the Internet about an individual. Please verify the facts before framing opinions about anyone.
While replying to the query raised by Girish Karnad, he said that when he was talking about the facts he meant that he wouldn’t want people to be abusive on the social media. He preferred sticking to the facts. He said,” We should present facts as we see them adding that we should present the facts after due research as we present facts for a case to the prosecution.”
He also talked about Left Liberals and added that for 40 to 50 years, the Leftists presented history in a certain way and now the facts are being challenged. He said that Left has presented its facts to the prosecution so have they presented theirs. He said over the time, it will get sorted out. He also talked about how the changes always offend someone or the other. He cited the example of now banned Sati System. Speaking about the system, he said that there must be those who had preferred the system in the past and they were all offended when Raja Ram Mohan Roy and others objected to it. He said that when we are interpreting law, we should remember that it is for the court to decide as to should a voice be muscled just because it is offending someone or is there a real need to do so.
Shourie in a lighter vein talked about how it was important to have thick skin and little contempt for those who shout at others. He said that being a member of Opposition, he used to shout at the then Finance Minister and the current President of India Pranab Mukherjee after he had signed a treaty with World Trade Organisation (WTO). He said that he and other Opposition leaders used to shout at Mukherjee that he had mortgaged the sovereignty of the nation. To which Mukherjee had once said that he has lost the count as to how many times he has mortgaged the sovereignty of the nation.
He was also in the favour of Section 66A being struck down as it was being misused at the lower level. For media’s voice being suppressed, he said that if media is so much in the favour of the people, it will be people who will stand up for them when media is being suppressed. He also suggested that one should not believe all that one reads on the social media about someone. He asked people to verify the fact and then form and opinion.
While referring to the recent Internet block out in Vadodara, he said that if the riots spread and people get killed then public is bound to say why simple steps like blocking Internet weren’t taken to stop riots from spreading. He added that curfew during riots was also a form of curtailment of freedom (freedom of movement) but that was necessary to stop people from coming onto streets and killing each other. Shourie concluded by stating that one should not become a fundamentalist on any issue even if it is in the context of defending Social Media freedoms that are liable to misuse.
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