May 26, 2024
Sundarayya Memorial Lecture: ‘Indian Democracy Under Threat – Stand Up to Protect our Liberties’

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JUSTICE S Muralidhar (retired chief justice of the Odisha High Court), delivered the 39th Sundarayya memorial lecture organised in Hyderabad on May 19. His lecture was titled: ‘Constitutional Democracy – Freedom of Expression – Today’s Indian Realities’. Covering a wide canvass, he started his lecture by paying rich tributes to Comrade P Sundarayya stating that it is very rare to find such great men in public life today. He expressed his concern at the danger threatening Indian democracy and exhorted all people to rise to defend democratic rights and freedoms.

Muralidhar started his address by tracing the historic evolution of the rights to freedom and expression and the limits imposed on them by successive governments. In the course, he mentioned the role played by the judiciary in ensuring the continuity of the restrictions.

Justice Muralidhar went on to explain why it is necessary in the context of electoral democracy to ensure that the voter’s right to choose at an election is preserved and protected. Quoting a Supreme Court judgement he stated that though right to vote is not a fundamental right, voting should be viewed as a form of expression of the will of the voter. In such a sense, it is guaranteed under the gamut of the right to freedom of expression.

It is under this context of freedom one should view the recent judgement of the Supreme Court, on the issue of electoral bonds, he opined. To buttress his argument, he quoted from the judgement, wherein it states: “Freedom of a voter in the negative connotation refers to the freedom to cast their vote without interference and intimidation. Freedom in the positive connotation includes the freedom to vote on the basis of complete and relevant information. This includes information about financial contributions to political parties.” The State Bank of India (SBI) was ordered to share complete information about the electoral bonds on the basis of this understanding of the concept of freedom.

Dwelling with the question of hate speeches, particularly during elections, he stated that though the Supreme Court had held Bal Thackeray responsible for delivering hate speeches during his campaign (Dr Ramesh Yashwant Prabhoo v. Prabhakar Kunte, 1995) the interpretation it had given to ‘Hindutva’ and ‘Hinduism’ had changed the public discourse ever since. The Court had defined that “in the abstract these terms are indicative more of a way of life of the Indian people and are not confined merely to describe persons practising the Hindu religion as a faith”. Attempts made to review this interpretation given by the Supreme Court in 2016 failed. In a way, such an interpretation is responsible for the ‘plummeting’ of the level of public discourse and is indirectly enabling leaders to cross the lines of ‘decency’ drawn in Article 19 (2) and indulge in hate speeches.

Commenting on the role of social media, he pointed to the failure of the yet to be notified Digital Data Protection Act and the existing IT Act in controlling the dominant caste groups from spreading hate speech, with the active encouragement of certain sections of the political class. He expressed his disappointment on the recent judgment in Kaushal Kishore concerning hate speech by politicians as it “fails to recognise the principle of collective responsibility when ministers, obviously under the green signal of the ‘high command’ utter obnoxious words from public platforms”.

Justice Muralidhar proceeded to talk about the country’s falling rank in the freedom of media indices. He stated that the government is controlling the media through advertisements of its ‘achievements’ – “not giving them to those newspapers that are even remotely critical of its functioning”. This is apart from the corporate control through paid news and advertorials, on which many media houses are depending for their revenues. He gave various examples of how the government is targeting journalists and media houses that are critical about its functioning. Here, he mentioned in particular, the instances of “Prabir Purkayastha of NewsClick, the online media platforms like Newslaundry, Wire and Scroll and individual journalists like Siddique Kappan, Rana Ayyub”, who continue to ‘face hostility and coercive action’ from the government.

In this context, Muralidhar also mentioned the restrictions imposed on foreign media houses too by the government to ensure that nothing critical about the prime minister or its performance is broadcast. He mentioned the directions issued by the government to block the URLs of a BBC documentary on Modi and also the subsequent raids on BBC offices in India.

Muralidhar brought to the notice of the audience certain instances, where the courts have stepped in to ensure media freedom. He quoted from the Supreme Court judgement on Madhyam Broadcasting case: “An independent press is vital for the robust functioning of a democratic republic. Its role in a democratic society is crucial for it shines a light on the functioning of the state. The press has a duty to speak truth to power, and present citizens with hard facts enabling them to make choices that propel democracy in the right direction. The restriction on the freedom of the press compels citizens to think along the same tangent. A homogenised view on issues that range from socio- economic polity to political ideologies would pose grave dangers to democracy”. He also lauded the Supreme Court’s stay on the government’s notification of the Fact-Check Unit (FCU) under the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Amendment Rules 2023 (IT Amendment Rules 2023).

However, Muralidhar lamented the inconsistencies in the responses of the various courts on the question of media freedom. “While it has come to the rescue of journalists like Arnab Goswami, Amish Devgn, Suresh Chavankhe, seen as pro-establishment, the experience of Siddique Kappan, Mohd Zubair and Rana Ayyub has not been quite the same”, he pointed out.

Continuing his lecture, Muralidhar stated that “what is less spoken of in the public discourse, although reports appear regularly in the press, is the severe restrictions on the freedom of both speech and expression of the marginalised groups”. This, according to him, “also brings to the fore the enormous power wielded by non-State actors in curtailing the freedoms of the deprived classes”.

Justice Muralidhar spoke about how marginalised sections like dalits are discriminated and denied various kinds of freedoms. “Dalits have faced severe consequences, often fatal, for merely playing music aloud or protesting against the upper castes doing so, of merely ‘looking at them’, for a dalit groom riding a horse on his wedding day, or sporting a moustache. On top of it, police usually deny permission for dalit events like Ravidas Jayanti or Ambedkar Jayanti. Permission for Hanuman Jayanti or Ram Navami is granted quickly, in comparison”. In this background, he welcomed the growing assertion among the dalits and other marginalised sections for their rights.

Muralidhar had stated that protest against all kinds of injustices is an important form of expression and should be protected at all costs. But this ‘freedom has been steadily eroded over the years by repressive states all over the world, and our country is no exception”, he said. The cut-down of internet in various states and regions, clamping down of peaceful protests, like those against CAA held in Shaheen Bagh, Delhi and farmers’ protests are some examples he had highlighted. On the other hand, he stated that “there has been an assertion of aggressive protests and actions by the dominant groups in the form of ‘route marches’.”

Expressing his views on the pressures exerted on certain artists and cultural groups by some organisations, he quoted Salman Rushdie to say that if one is afraid of the consequences of what one says, then one is not free. He condemned the attempts of certain dominant and minority religious groups to persecute people stating that their sentiments are being hurt. He also said that it is completely wrong to hound people who express their opinions which are contrary to those held by sections of people. “What is disconcerting is that the majority of the right-thinking people choose to remain silent”, he lamented.

Justice Muralidhar also expressed his displeasure at the increasing number of contempt of court petitions filed against individuals who do not agree to certain judgements delivered by the courts. He opined that we should be open to criticism.

Talking about the challenges facing the humanity, he focused on artificial intelligence, genome editing, digital development, deep fakes and the growth of mass surveillance. “How we are going to ensure a future where we are able to even think freely, speak without fear of consequences is something that we should all be engaged in, in the immediate present”. Pointing to the control over data exercised by large corporations like Amazon, Meta Alphabet and Microsoft, he said that these corporations know more about us than we know about ourselves. “Extricating ourselves and our future generations out of the web induced dystopia poses the greatest challenge before humanity”, he said. Muralidhar concluded his lecture by stating that there is hope for a better future because of the concerted efforts of a pushback by an informed user population against these attacks on freedom and democracy.

The biggest challenge before future generations, according to him is to resist the attempts to ‘dumb-down’ dalits, minorities and other less privileged sections, by feeding them with distorted facts and false narratives.

“We indeed have to work hard at preserving our precious freedom. We must stand up for not just our liberty but everybody else’s”, he ended to a rousing applause.

Justice Muralidhar captured the attention of the audience with his thought-provoking lecture, which he had supplemented with a presentation of videos and documents that justified his arguments. BV Raghavulu, Polit Bureau member of the CPI(M) and chairman of the Sundarayya Vignana Kendram Trust delivered the introductory, inaugural address. The programme ended with cultural performances that were well received.


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