Don't compromise over freedom of expression

The content of the movie and a dalit writer's books may be contentious and drew vehement opposition most recently.

Freedom of speech is vital to a democracy. Artistic licence, as in books and movies, may sometimes stretch the boundaries of credulity or offend sensitivities. But there would be reason to fear for democracy itself if the freedom to voice an opinion or idea is circumscribed in any way. Any attack on books or movies, even if aimed only at specific words, scenes or dialogues where the progenitors of ideas or those portraying them are seen to skirt the boundaries of greater social harmony, are to be dissuaded on the simple premise that they don’t have to read those books or see those films.

New Tamil movie Mersal, starring Vijay, an actor with political ambitions, has become the subject of intense political debate over its monologues on GST and “Digital India” that are extremely critical of government initiatives. The ruling party at the Centre is under fire for seeking the deletion of critical scenes and dialogues as they are said to be “anti-national”. The film’s producers say they are open to cutting the scenes, but this would amount to intellectual dishonesty.

The movie, based on a contemporary theme in a rural setting, aims at certain topics of governance and reflects what is believed to be public angst over GST. While arguments over short-term effects and long-term gains of the single tax may rage in more purposeful economic forums and among many stakeholders, the common refrain over a prohibitive 28 per cent cap and the feeling that there is little in return except bad roads and poor healthcare is what has been picturised.

The content of the movie and a dalit writer’s books may be contentious and drew vehement opposition most recently. The books issue went to court, where the right to freedom of expression was upheld. The definitive thing to be said, regardless of whether we see eye to eye with creative people or not, is that we agree with the principle ascribed to Voltaire: “I disapprove of what you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it”. The logic favouring the right to say freely what they believe is never defeated regardless of who opposes it.

The Congress, making a fuss this time over the attack on freedom of expression in Mersal, opposed the production of a movie on Indira Gandhi in the most undemocratic manner by disrupting promotional events associated with the film Indu Sarkar. So the opinion of neither of the major national political parties nor those of illiberal politicians must be allowed to guide us in the matter of the right to freedom of speech and expression. It’s a principle that must be upheld at all costs if we believe in the core values of a free India.

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