Right to dissent, duty to be decent


The Constitution grants the people the right to freedom of speech but today, indecent language is the norm. The need is to make fundamental rights more duty-friendly

An issue that has lately gained traction is the argument made by proponents of an absolute and unfettered right to free speech and expression. In light of the recent booking of an assistant professor of a Delhi University college for an alleged Facebook post (later deleted) on Goddess Durga that hurt the sentiments of many, there is an urgent need to examine where to draw the line whilst upholding our fundamental rights. 

Article 19(1)(a) of the Indian Constitution grants every individual the fundamental right to freely speak and express opinions. But even fundamental rights are not absolute. Article 19(1)(a) comes along with reasonable restrictions under Article 19(2) in which Clause IV rightly mentions of adopting decency and morality in one’s speech. The other equally significant restrictions are for securing the safety of state, friendly relations with foreign states, public order, sovereignty and the integrity of India, and preventing contempt of court, defamation and incitement to an offence.

But under the garb of free speech, abusive and indecent language has commonly become an unquestionable part of one’s communication. It seems the right to freedom of speech and expression has given way to the right to freedom to abuse another’s beliefs. Violence of language and language of violence has become the norm. Sheer abuse never makes it to the cut when it’s about free speech and really has no place even in dissent. Of course, the right to dissent verily makes Article 19(1)(a) healthy, prosperous and democratic.

India, since ancient times, has placed great emphasis on the tradition of shastrath. The Constitution-making debates and early post-Independence parliamentary debates, reflect the good health of our tradition to deliberate, discuss, and dissent. India has always boasted of its debate tradition, as it were, but dissent these days is largely becoming synonymous with filthy, hurtful and abusive language.  

Unhindered flow of free ideas can only be maintained when a certain level of decency and decorum is maintained in speech. Abuse is an act that is carried out not with the objective to have a reasoned debate and discussion and come to an agreeable solution. Rather, the participant becomes an opponent in an act of abuse and the sole purpose then becomes to degrade, humiliate and deliberately attack the other’s self-worth. In this process, the executor elevates his position by assaulting others’ images, symbols and signs of belief. So, the abuser is not engaging in any discussion, rather s/he is spewing invectives and diluting the real essence of free speech.

The maturity and development of any civilised society is gauged by the decency and moral approach adopted in communications to resolve a crisis. Decency is the basic tenet of communication. It is the sign of a patient person who has the qualities of valour and grit. And when an abuser violates basic norms of decency, it is fair to assume that s/he has an approach predicated on not an intention to communicate and engage but to domination and/or humiliation. The short-term benefits of abuse may lead to immediate gains by mocking others’ symbols or gaining cheap popularity but in the longer run it hollows out trust and confidence. Such an attitude also smacks of regression and deters peace and prosperity of society. But sadly, abuse has become a part of popular culture.

Right to dissent walks closely with duty to be decent. Dissent or free speech can only be accepted if it’s decent in language. And decency is not a contested term. No one can claim abuse to be decent. Speaking of the case of the Delhi University professor, he has abused a tradition that showcases one of the most tolerant and inclusive religions of the world. The very fact that he has been able to make a derogatory statement on a public platform shows the golden virtue of tolerance in Hinduism. Hinduism itself has been premised on the rich liberal philosophy of each pursuing his or her faith in their own individual and convenient manner. 

Those who want to relish material pleasures of life can find an abode in Charvaka school of philosophy, or else asceticism is there for those who want to lead a life of isolation and abandon the material world. Selfless dedication of life for the upliftment of community finds a place in vasudhaiva kutumbakam glorifying the beautiful tenet  sarve bhavantu sukhina (let all be happy). Belief in one supreme energy is extolled in Advaita philosophy.  And for the dissenters, Hinduism also provides a large platform for logical criticism in core Hindu precepts of nyaya (justice) and taraka (logic).  But the pertinent question is, do we really want to explore respectable, non-hurtful ways of speech and dissent or employ abuse for expression?

The veracity of the popular adage — your liberty to swing your fist ends where my nose begins, needs underlining. Rights are not duty free goods sold at the airport. A rightful claim to rights, as it were, can only carry resonance when accompanied by a fulfilling of rightful duties. Ten Fundamental Duties were included by 42nd Amendment Act in 1976 under Article 51(A) and the last Amendment for provision of education to children in the 6-14 age group was made almost 15 years back in 2002 via the 86th Amendment. Over the years, the Indian Constitution has seen a significant expansion in fundamental rights, which is welcome, but also a not-so-welcome marginalisation of fundamental duties and thus an imbalance has resulted. The need of the hour is to make our fundamental rights more duty-friendly and inculcate the values of responsible nationalism in the citizenry.

(The writer is Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, Maitreyi College, University of Delhi)


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