Freedom of speech in India is for the rich and the powerful

While freedom of speech and expression in India is under attack from all sides, have you noticed how the rich and the powerful can say what they like without getting arrested, facing FIRs and courts, hiring lawyers and so on?

While an innocuous tweet or Facebook status update can land you in police lock-up on a Saturday night or Sunday morning 5 am, a Digvijaya Singh can say sexist crap against Rakhi Sawant and get away with it.

Here’s another example from Twitter recently. Lalit Modi of IPL infamy, who wants us to believe his coming to India and facing the law is a security threat to him, tweeted that the BJP’s  Arun Jaitley would lose his deposit if he contested the Lok Sabha seat from Jaipur. (Lalit Modi thinks he’s the Maharaja of Rajasthan.) In response to that, one Ankush Jain replied…


You can see there, Barkha Dutt’s threat to sue three people,one of whom said nothing, was merely tagged there. Ankush Jain was so terrified he deleted not just his Tweet but even his twitter account! I don’t blame him. He’s probably a student or a government employee or runs a shop somewhere… he wouldn’t want to face legal notices and police stations and court-rooms. Lalit K Modi on the other hand has no such problem. He counter-threatened Barkha Dutt with legal notices. Jain’s offending tweet still exists in the form of a manual RT by Lalit Modi, as you can see in the screenshot above.

You can see here a good summary of what happened on Twitter over this.

Some Tweeple then pointed out that a similar allegation was made by Vinod Mehta in his book Lucknow Boy but Dutt never sued Mehta. Here is a screenshot from the Google Books version of Mehta’s book:

Lucknow Boy A Memoir - Vinod Mehta - Google Books - Mozilla Firefox_2013-02-13_23-40-57

So while an Ankush Jain is bullied into deleting his Twitter account, a Vinod Mehta can sit pretty.

The Indian Constitution promises freedom of speech and equality. Both promises are just that. The Internet’s democratisation of public discourse hurts the rich and the powerful and they are striking back. The rest of us feel helpless.

Lawrence Liang’s two posts from Kafila archives are worthy of recall:

This sentiment reminds me of Anatole France’s famous statement that the law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread. The quick equation of an individual blogger with the might of a newspaper or a magazine is a little troubling. Individuals do not have the same kind of power, money or reach to be able to defend themselves in the way that newspapers may be capable of. [Bloggers and Defamation]


So why is the punishment redundant? Because it doesn’t really matter. The mere fact that the provision exists and the fact that it allows for the possibility for someone to file a police complaint or threaten police action serves the purpose of intimidating speakers, reader, organizers regardless of the fact that in most cases if it were to go to trial, it would be highly unlikely that the offending act would be found to be in violation of the provisions. The courts have laid down reasonably high standards for interpreting what would amount to a violation of these laws, and have even acknowledged their misuse. [The process is the bloody punishment]

Where the mind is without fear, where the head is held high…

11 thoughts on “Freedom of speech in India is for the rich and the powerful”

  1. Law suits are used as a means to shut-up people – also saw this with the Kejriwal-Ambani case. I do find it rather funny that a common man, who references a Vinod Mehta book, is liable to be sued, but Vinod Mehta, the writer himself, can sit pretty in his home.

    There are many scholars in media field who have suggested that the next move by politicians and conglomerates will be to invest in social media and internet as a way to tackle this issue. Freedom of speech? Be prepared to forget about it – sooner or later.


  2. I have a few questions –

    According to Vinod Mehta, Barkha Dutt pleaded with Arun Jaitley to not mention Radia Tapes in parliament. NDTV is known to be pro-congress – why would Arun Jaitley agree to such a proposition? Why didn’t he go all against her? Was it because she could have gone all out against BJP? I scratch your back, you scratch mine? Does it suggest understanding between media and political parties and also business houses to scuttle this issue? (Radia tapes was Tata!) You do the math. I am an art student.

    PS: Was Open Magazine also sued?


  3. Who make people like Barkha big ,its we or else who care who she is . Just a new anchor reader. Yeah today media house is big in India but not that big as in other part of world. For TRP they can reach dead man and ask how he/she feel.
    We always discuss what Sardesia or Barkha think , may I know why ? Do you form opinion based on what BD or RS think? You watch movie based on review why? Don’t you have your own sense to judge? If not then don’t complain others. If BD would had been smart and intelligent she would had been bureaucrat somewhere minting money.
    If I want to sue someone I will go and sue. Barkha is mere attention seeker on social media. I did name same RADIA thing and she blocked me. I don’t care if she sue me or what ever. If she can hire a lawyer so can I.
    So ignore is the best response to people like Barkha Dutt


  4. Very well written article. Many journos apparently wants blogs to be moderated whilst they want Media not to be constraint with restrictions. How hypocritical I wonder.


  5. satish poduval here on freedom of speech and what it could mean to think of it productively:

    speaks to both this context and that of ashis nandy’s comments at the JLF


  6. for some reason, the embedded video is diff from the one i’m trying to link to, which is available as under the title ‘Freedom of Speech vs Deepening of Democracy: Dr Satish Poduval’ on youtube. gah.


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