Free speech underpins all other freedoms

In conversation with Article 19

As India celebrates its 77th day of freedom, what does it mean when so many within the territory India controls don’t have basic freedoms, and even speaking about the need for freedoms to widen and deepen is not allowed?

AUGUST 15 annually revives some mandatory celebrations in the Red Fort, few compelling speeches of politicians, some performances to mainstream music, various offers and sales in the supermarket and, most importantly, a day off.

The Tryst with Destiny speech of Jawaharlal Nehru shall play on a loop to remind us to wake to life to life and freedom.

It is also an intense day for the media and us intellectuals.

We remember our struggle for independence, scholars assess the situation of our democracy, evaluate the extent of our freedoms and debate various opinions.

Invariably, we arrive at the conversation about the receding right to freedom of speech and expression which immediately polarises opinions.

That is perhaps where we put the cart before the horse.

Amidst the floodgate of opinions, facts are either forgotten or misplaced, leaving us with shallow banter and excessive chaos.

We arrive at opinions without remembering or delving into the deeper memories and facts of history, identity, law and politics that we, as a society, have chosen to not confront or even introduce ourselves to.

The eve of independence day, 1947

India gained independence from British colonial rule spanning over 300 years on August 15, 1947.

An estimated 20 lakh people had already died by the eve of this day, amidst the brutalities, sexual violence, displacement and migration that followed the great divide which partitioned former British India.

British soldiers and journalists, who had also witnessed the Nazi concentration camps and killings, said that the horrors of the great divide of India were worse.

The massacres were gruesome in scale in the split provinces of Punjab and Bengal.

There were communal riots, looting, burning of houses, mass murders and unprecedented and unimaginable sexual violence.

Entire villages were burnt down as women’s bodies became battlegrounds. The breasts of pregnant women were chopped off and their foetuses were prised off their bellies.

Babies were literally found roasted in the fires. In one single night, over 5 lakh people had been killed.

Also read: Britain had no option, but to grant independence to India on August 15, 1947

British soldiers and journalists, who had also witnessed the Nazi concentration camps and killings, said that the horrors of the great divide of India were worse.

That is how, amidst one of history’s largest migrations of human beings, objects and even cattle, two new nations— India and Pakistan— were formed.

Yet, nearly 14 million people found no country to be in. They had become stateless, they had no country, home or address. They were refugees.

Decolonised India becomes colonial— remembering two of our conquests

Soon after India and Pakistan became independent after years of anti-colonial struggle and with a pledge to be leaders of emerging democracies, both the countries changed their aspirations.

They became arch rivals in their colonialist ambitions to own as much land and control as many people as they could.

While India celebrated its independence, people in Kashmir continued with their demand for self-determination.

The Instrument of Accession of the State of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), signed by Maharaja Hari Singh on 26 October, 1947, clearly stated that the Government of India could govern and make laws for Jammu and Kashmir only under the subjects of “defence, external affairs and communications”.

While India celebrated its independence, people in Kashmir continued with their demand for self-determination.

While accepting the accession, the government of India made it very clear that it would be regarded as purely provisional until the will of the people of the State could be ascertained.

Also read: Article 370, a curtain-raiser: Factum valet or redemption of federalism? Supreme Court to decide

During the debates in the Constituent Assembly, on 27 May, 1949, N. Gopalaswami Ayyangar explained the Article 306A of the Draft Constitution (Article 370 of the Indian Constitution).

Ayyangar was an Indian civil servant and statesman who worked as the Prime Minister of the Princely State of J&K and thereafter as a minister in the very first cabinet of independent India, and served on the Indian Constitution’s drafting committee.

He said that the accession of J&K was complete.

However, the dominion of India had offered a fair and impartial plebiscite when the conditions are created, in order to give an opportunity to the people of J&K to determine their Statehood and express their will as to whether they wish to ratify the Instrument of Accession or go against the continuance of the accession.

Gopalaswami explained that under the Indian Independence Act, when a State accedes and subsequently wishes to withdraw, it could not do so without the consent of the dominion.

On behalf of the Dominion of India, he promised that “their commitment is simply this, that if and when a plebiscite is against India, then we shall not stand in the way of the wishes of the people of Kashmir being given effect to, they want to go away from us.”

In 1948, accession of Hyderabad marked the taking over of the final princely territory by India.

While the Nizam of Hyderabad resisted Indian annexation, all other princely States had agreed to become a part of India.

The Indian army quite easily defeated the Nizam. The aftermath was marked by severe communal killings, revenge murders and rapes.

According to the Sundarlal Committee Report that was submitted in 1948, at least 27,000–40,000 people were killed as an aftermath of the annexation.

Some estimates even claim that as many as 200,000 people were butchered during this annexation.

Also read: Secularism and democracy requires the power of truth, not any religion, to survive

Freedom to seek the right to facts— the path to actualise the right to freedom of speech and expression

Indian independence came with a lot of baggage of lost dreams, broken hearts, betrayal and trauma.

It is this generational trauma that compels us to be drawn towards freedom and democracy which alone can lead us to peace.

It is important to remember the fact that “We, the people of India”, gave our Constitution to ourselves in a country that was hungry, divided and massacred.

The Constitution was our expression and search for compassion of which we were deprived as a society.

It is our most precious document of human rights law.

Hence, it is up to us to realise that craving for equality, peace, justice and freedom. That the aspiration to wake up to life and freedom was not mere rhetoric.

As Nehru asserted in his speech, independence was only a step towards freedom. Freedom shall be when we end tears and sufferings. This history of suffering is our history.

We are the children of partition, the great divide and migration. In fact, most of our ancestors have migrated at some point in their lives. 

There resides a refugee in most of us.

We, therefore, cannot progress as a civilisation without understanding our identity and roots that lie in the factual history of our nations.

To understand the root cause and where we failed, it is important that the information we receive should be unfiltered.

The plebiscite under which the will of the people of Kashmir was to be determined has not been carried out to this day.

The plebiscite under which the will of the people of Kashmir was to be determined has not been carried out to this day and indeed after the de-operationalisation abrogation of Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, the possibility of any such plebiscite remains bleak.

Kashmir remains the most militarised zone in the world.

In 2022, Jammu and Kashmir saw maximum internet outages in the world.

Several reports have claimed that people in prisons have been tortured in unspeakable ways including through waterboarding, sleep deprivation and sexual torture including sodomy and rape.

The Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958 is strikingly similar to the British colonial legislations that were used to brutally suppress the Indian freedom struggle.

The Act not only, not gives wide powers to kill and maim on mere suspicion, arrest and carry searches inside homes without a warrant, but also impunity to the military in Kashmir.

Amidst the armed forces in Kashmir, fratricides are regular as the personnel remain tense due to situations of threat and violence, they are often away from home and ordinary family lives, pushing them to altered, dysfunctional personalities.

Yet hardly any news of the abject conditions Kashmiris are subjected to, or the effect it has on the Indian armed forces, is allowed to appear in mainstream media. Alternative forums are gagged by laws ranging from sedition, Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, 1967 (UAPA) and Information Technology Act, 2000 and newer laws that are being passed.

The Sunderlal Report was kept classified and the history of the massacre during the accession of Hyderabad was erased from all school syllabuses, irrespective of political parties in power.

Fact-finding and reporting is also not a convenient job to perform in contemporary India. The freedom of media has steadily declined in the past decade.

The US, in their 2021 Country Reports on India also expressed their concerns on the diminishing freedom of press in India and specifically listed out instances in which press freedom was vitiated.

According to a study conducted by journalist Geeta Seshu and Urvashi Sarkar, between 2014 and 2019, over 200 journalists have been attacked in India for merely doing their job.

Counter-terrorism laws such as the UAPA override the standard criminal law procedures for bail.

It is practically impossible for any accused to be released on bail under the UAPA, when there is a case with a mere prima facie narrative against the accused and lack of admissible evidence. 

There have been recent instances where journalists in Kashmir have faced criminal cases including charges under counter-terror laws, intimidation, arrests and surveillance, and have been denied passports.

In November 2021, when violence erupted in Assam, a group of lawyers, who went there to conduct a fact-finding report were booked by the state police under the UAPA.

Later, the Supreme Court of India had to step in to grant these lawyers protection from arrest.

Several other journalists were similarly slapped with charges under the counter-terror laws for merely attempting to report on the situation in Assam.

A number of other laws like the Prevention of Money-Laundering Act, 2002 and the Foreign Contributions (Regulation) Act, 2010, which are essentially laws regarding financial irregularities are being used against journalists and bloggers in India.

The office of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) in India was recently raided by tax officials soon after the BBC released a documentary on the Gujarat communal violence of 2002, which has been banned in India.

Various media houses such as the Newsclick and Newslaundry have been raided by the Enforcement Directorate.


In 2023, India ranked 161 out of 180 countries in the World Press Freedom Index.

As we celebrate our 76th independence day, India ranks 107 out of 121 countries in the Global Hunger Index, which is below the ranking of our neighbouring countries— Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal. India falls in the “severe” category as per the index.

Fact-finding and reporting is also not a convenient job to perform in contemporary India.

India’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) allocation for education is about 3 percent while we are the world’s fourth highest spender in defence with a military spending of about US $ 81.4 billion.

Communal riots, violence and sexual brutalities continue to haunt us on a regular basis.

This year, India shall celebrate her independence at a time when women in Manipur have been publicly dehumanised, paraded naked and killed.

Thousands of Indians continue to live in camps within the country as internally displaced persons due to communal violence and riots.

Unfortunately, social media and the internet that could be an important source of factual information and necessary conversation, has become too polluted with misinformation.

Almost everywhere in the country, various historical documents have either been destroyed, forgotten or altered. Our right to facts, actual information and knowledge remains unfulfilled.

Our history textbooks are incomplete, our news broadcasts, newspapers and other outlets are full of opinions without barely any source of facts which are the premise upon which opinions can be formed.

Yet, the most important factor of any democracy is that “We, the people of India” have given ourselves this country, and therefore, its definition and future are also our responsibilities.

A democracy cannot truly function without facing its truth because democracy is bound to question everything, even itself.

This very audacity and honesty is the basic character of a real democracy.

Our political representatives, laws and our politics are also a reflection of who we were and who we, as a nation, aspire to be.

Policies and laws that distract from the truth reflect the cowardice of a nation and its collective conscience.

Undeniably, the right to freedom of speech and expression is the most indispensable right in a constitutional democracy that aspires to search for higher freedoms.

Yet, in the absence of facts, opinions cannot be sincere.

Without strong convictions, our speech shall become unbearable chaotic noise.

Unfortunately, in the absence of inclusive and wholesome academic syllabus in schools, adequate professional and fearless media and limited sources of facts and documentation, and also our general disregard and escapism from truth we forget the wrongs that we committed as a society, as generations and as a civilisation.

Almost everywhere in the country, various historical documents have either been destroyed, forgotten or altered.

We forget who we are, where we came from and our identities.

It is much easier to put on blinders and encourage violence on the pretext of politics or religion or even nation when we forget the millions of deaths and the blood that we already have on our hands.

Violence, hate and brutalities were and remain the expressions of our inherent frustrations of several years of deprivations and social injustice.

Yet, it is only us, the people of this nation, who can truly revive social justice, peace and heal each other’s deep wounds and scars.

If we want our destiny to change, we as a society have to wake up in the truest of its senses and seek the freedom to embrace factual knowledge and gain the courage to face our history and identity.

Without knowing our unfreedoms, we cannot seek freedom. 

The Leaflet