Implementation of Free Speech Zones

Implementation of Free Speech Zones

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Avani Bansal started this petition to The Indian Government and

Democracy : A Voice of the Voiceless

Setting Up India's First Free Speech Zone Under Indian Flag in Connaught Place, Delhi

Sign this Petition if you agree that there is a crushing of dissent and threat to freedom of speech and expression in India under the current government. The blatant misuse of Section 144 of the CrPC, 1973 as seen in Delhi against those peacefully putting forth their views is unprecedented. Express your support and sign this petition. Tell us if you agree to come together near the Indian Flag in Connaught Place (CP) to set up India’s first free speech zone in Delhi.

It is said that in a democracy the right to free expression is not only the right of an individual but, rather a right of the community to hear and be informed. In modern times it is widely accepted that the right to freedom of speech is the essence of free society and it must be safeguarded at all times. This is an axiom of Indian constitutional jurisprudence that we are taught, to repeat and internalise. The first principle of a free society is an untrammelled flow of words in an open forum. Liberty to express opinions and ideas without hindrance, and especially without fear of punishment plays significant role in the development of that particular society and ultimately for that state. Freedom of expression has four broad social purposes to serve: (i) It helps an individual to attain self fulfillment; (ii) It assists in the discovery of truth; (iii) It strengthens the capacity of an individual in participating in decision-making; and (iv) It provides a mechanism by which it would be possible to establish a reasonable balance between stability and social change. It is one of the most important fundamental liberties guaranteed against state suppression or regulation. All citizens should be able to form their own beliefs and communicate them freely to others. In sum, the fundamental principle involved here is the people’s right to know. Our commitment to freedom of expression demands that it cannot be suppressed unless the situations created by allowing the freedom are pressing and the community interest is endangered. The anticipated danger should not be remote, conjectural or far fetched. It should have proximate and direct nexus with the expression. The expression of thought should be intrinsically dangerous to the public interests. Broadly speaking the people of India are largely living in the darker side of the governance of the country and are often uninformed about the public affairs and are dominated by those who wheel power in the executive, legislative and judicial spheres.

The right to freedom of expression and the right to peaceful protest become crucial in this case scenario – information and ideas help to inform political debate and are essential to public accountability and transparency in Government.  While there may be a constitutionally guaranteed right to freedom of speech, in practice there is a right only to limited types of speech and only in limited avenues. Under the current government, it appears that the government control will only tighten and our freedoms will only grow smaller. The Liberal Democracy Index report attempts to capture the liberal and electoral aspects of a democracy. This includes the conduct of free and fair elections as well as liberal checks and balances on government with respect to individual rights and institutional balances. India has seen a significant fall compared to its historical score ever since Modi came to power in 2014. In the South Asian region, Sri Lanka and Nepal rank higher than India. India’s poor performance is because of the clampdown on the liberal features of the Indian system. The report states, “The infringements on media freedom and the civil society activities of democracy following the election of a Hindu-nationalist government have started to undermine the longest-standing and most populous democracy in the Global South.” Even activists, journalists, lawyers and academics are concerned that free speech in India is deteriorating. In the 2017 World Press Freedom Index, India sank three places to position 136 ("least free”). It counted 54 reported attacks on journalists, at least three cases of television news channels being banned, 45 Internet shutdowns and 45 sedition cases against individuals and groups between January 2016 and April 2017. Chhattisgarh has been one of several major flashpoints. Arrests, death threats and even alleged torture of journalists, human rights activists and lawyers by agencies of the central Indian state created what a 2016 Amnesty International report called a "near total information blackout". Meanwhile, The Hoot declared 2016 the year that "sedition went viral". The independent media monitor recorded 40 cases filed by the year's end on sedition.

While restricted free speech is far from unprecedented in India, many observers describe a decline in the quality of the freedom of expression in India since Modi took office in 2014. The numbers on Internet shutdowns and sedition cases don't tell the whole story: some analysts see the change most clearly manifested as a shift in the climate of debate. There has emerged a certain angry mob mentality, especially on television and digital media that is drowning out certain kinds of discussions and making people unwilling of engaging on certain topics, fearful of its consequences. We cannot avoid the role political leaders play in setting the tone for political discussion which in the present case has been led by provocative and divisive comments. As popular as the BJP is, its religiously inflected brand of nationalism has raised concerns about government-backed sectarianism and low tolerance for dissent. Satish Deshpande, a professor of sociology at the University of Delhi, thinks the government's failure to condemn violence has contributed to its normalisation and, in turn, an increase in self-censorship. "A climate of fear is created, which elicits a kind of voluntary censorship," he says. The latest World Press Freedom Index, too, noted that self-censorship is on the rise in Indian mainstream media. The word anti-national, now has mainstream political significance. Global writers’ body PEN International, while releasing its annual “Freedom of Expression Report”  said that the “climate for free expression has severely deteriorated in India in the last few years” under the Prime Minister Narendra Modi-led NDA government. Silencing the media through violent means signals the breakdown of a functioning democracy. One portion addresses online abuse: “In the past couple of years in India, habitual abusers online have given up the cloak of anonymity. On the contrary, their Twitter bios proudly proclaim that the Prime Minister of the country, suggesting their confidence that they can act with impunity, follows them. The report illustrates the varied ways in which critical voices are targeted and silenced. It highlights directed attacks online and offline; the systematic stifling of academic research and freedom; and the continued marginalisation of and hostility towards women’s voices.

Given the atmosphere that has made dissent a threat to your life, our proposition is that of establishing ‘Free Speech Zones’ (Janta Samvaad) on lines of the Speakers’ Corner which originated in Hyde Park, London but has spread over the world. Speakers' Corner is well known as the home of free speech, where anyone can get on their soapbox and make their voice heard. A little over 30 years earlier George Orwell had described the place as "one of the minor wonders of the world", writing that in Hyde Park he had listened to Indian nationalists, temperance reformers, Communists, the Socialist Party of Great Britain, the Catholic Evidence Society, vegetarians, and a large variety of freethinkers. What India needs at the moment is a safe space for peaceful expression of moral and political matters. The State can’t interfere with the right to protest just because it disagrees with protesters’ views, or because it’s likely to be inconvenient and cause a nuisance or because there might be tension and heated exchange between opposing groups. Instead it must take reasonable steps to enable you to protest and to protect participants in peaceful demonstrations from disruption by others. The Indian police and the government continue to use Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code, 1973 to prevent anyone intending to put forth his/her opinion peacefully.  

According to Abraham Lincoln, the democracy is Government by the people, for the people and of the people. But there can be no Government by the people if the people are ignorant of the issues to be resolved, the arguments for and against different solutions and the facts underlying those arguments. Thus, it is the people who are the sovereign in a democracy. And their freedom of speech and freedom to protest are closely linked – free speech would mean nothing if there was no right to use public spaces to make your views known. The Supreme Court of India upheld the right to protest as a fundamental right of speech and assemble. The court restored the two venues, Jantar Mantar and Boat Club, close to the seat of power in Central Delhi, for protestors and said people had a fundamental right to demonstrate peace peacefully. They held the right to protest is also crucial since it strengthens representative democracy by enabling direct participation.

We derive our inspiration from Gandhi’s preachings of Satyagraha as a means of peaceful medium of registering protest. India attained its Independence through peaceful struggle. Passive resistance, civil disobedience and Satyagraha are well known instruments of protest. They essentially involve peaceful and non-violent methodologies of protest. Satyagraha is an instrument where truth is used for assertion. A Satyagrahi himself bears the punishment for violating the law and for disagreeing with an oppressive regime. The term ‘Satyagriha’ originated in a news-sheet Indian Opinion in South Africa in 1906. It was an adaptation by Gandhi ji from one of competition entries in South Africa. Satyagraha went beyond the concept of ‘passive resistance’. Its force lay in truth and the ability to struggle for it and these are the basis of our protest. Speak up to exercise our fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression, speak up to give voice to our sentiment and speak up to revive the mode of Satyagraha and establish true democracy in India. 

We will decide on a time and date to meet at the Indian Flag, CP, Delhi. Sign this petition to show your support.     

(Thanks to Kavya Agarwal, IIIrd year, Jindal Global Law School for help with drafting the Petition)   

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