Prize Winning Speech Delivered at Debate Competition in Maharaja Agrasen College

The topic for today’s debate is that this house will honour religious sentiments by censoring creative expression and I, Saif Ahmad Khan, will speak for the motion. All freedoms guaranteed to us by the Constitution are justiciable but none of them are absolute in nature. Freedom of Speech and Expression is one of the foremost rights guaranteed to us and Article 19 of the Constitution deals with it. This right like all other fundamental rights is coupled with a set of riders. These riders include that the right of free speech shouldn’t be utilized to violate communal harmony, religious sentiments, public order, morality, decency, security of the state and must not amount to contempt of court.

The fundamental approach with which this fundamental right is approached needs to be rectified. Constructive criticism of religion is always welcome, it’s laudable and commendable but blasphemy, communal instigation and provocation to undertake sacrilege are indeed unholy and unconstitutional. An individual falls well within the ambit of the freedom of speech and expression when he criticizes the caste system in Hinduism or the status of women in Islam but if somebody abuses or questions the character of Prophet Mohammad as Mr Rushdie did, if somebody paints a Hindu God in the nude as Mr Hussain did or if somebody recommends demolition of mosques as Mr Swamy did, he is indeed indulging in absolute abuse of the freedom of speech and expression. These are all controversies involving blatant blasphemy and despotic defamation of deities which is capable of fueling anarchy.

I do agree that protestors against these people have not waged their dissent democratically but the fact remains that you are secular if you respect the Constitution and the restrictions imposed by it. Whether those restrictions are reasonable or unreasonable can always be tested in a court of law. I would like to conclude by stating that within the realm of our rights, our freedoms are absolute but we are not entitled to supersede the sphere of our rights by denigrating another community’s religion. All creations which bypass constitutional restrictions are bound to get banned. 

Blasphemy & Freedom of Speech – Strict Laws Not Street Laws

Freedom of Speech and Expression is one of the foremost fundamental rights guaranteed to us by the Constitution. For democracy to flourish eternally, it is imperative that this particular right is upheld under all circumstances. However, due to contradictory or rather due to lack of clear cut comprehension of this liberty, the society has run into humongous amounts of turpitude which has resulted into colossal commotion, chaotic conditions and conniving controversies. The fundamental approach with which this fundamental right is approached needs to be rectified.

The Constitution of India grants all its citizens the freedom of speech and expression under Article 19 of the Constitution but the factor that needs to be kept into perspective over here is that this isn’t an absolute right. As citizens we were bestowed with numerous path-breaking and game-changing liberties but none of those liberties were what can be referred to as “absolute liberties”. All freedoms guaranteed to us are judicially enforceable but none of them are absolute in nature. The Constitution-makers acted with a lot of caution while weaving the Constitution. They ensured fundamental filtration of freedoms before their execution. Most of the pivotal rights which we’ve been guaranteed come with a set of riders and this was done intentionally so as to avoid confrontation. Freedom of Speech and Expression too comes along with a medley of riders or limitations. These riders include that the right of free speech shouldn’t be utilized to promote communal disharmony and hurt religious sentiments, shouldn’t go against public decency and morality, shouldn’t compromise the security and sovereignty of the state, must not affect friendly foreign relations with other countries and shouldn’t amount to contempt of court.

Now that the freedom of speech and expression has been clearly put forth, its time to address the core issue of blasphemy. Blasphemy is basically the practice of disrespecting and ridiculing religious beliefs, divine scriptures and holy figures. Living in a secular and democratic state, where one is entitled to the freedom of speech and expression doesn’t provide anyone with the right to produce or promote blasphemy. I have every right to make use of a particular right in a constructive way but I have no right to exercise a right in a way which might be detrimental or destructive for others. Constructive criticism of religion is always laudable, commendable and welcome but blasphemy is lacklustre, condemnable and unholy. An individual falls well within the ambit of the freedom of speech and expression when he talks about the ills of various religions. You cannot stop an individual from talking about the caste or sati system in Hinduism or the status of women in Islam nor can opprobrium of undemocratic and dictatorial Islamic regimes, colonialist Christian establishments be run down in the name of blasphemy or abuse of freedom of speech and expression but if somebody questions the character of Jesus Christ, abuses Prophet Mohammed, paints a Hindu God in the nude, makes fun of a Sikh Guru’s turban or Lord Buddha’s bald head, he is indeed breeding blasphemy and indulging in absolute-abuse of the freedom of speech and expression.

Whenever such a kind of an issue arises there is a natural uproar but the dissenters have had a history of becoming a part of the problem instead of actually solving it. If anybody indulges in blasphemy, there is a legitimate way out to get that person punished. You can drag him to a court of law and ensure that he is taken to task but over the years the dissenters have done everything apart from doing this. To deal with blasphemy we need strict laws, not street laws. We cannot let issues like these be decided on the streets where you straightaway go and assassinate the person accused of blasphemy without allowing the law to take its own course. The problem with fanatic right-wingers, intolerant fundamentalists and anarchy-creators is that many a times they flag genuine concerns but their violent reactions (which are on exhibition when they go about vandalizing and torching stuff) align them in the same position as the one who has committed the offence of blasphemy. These dissenters are alien to the concept of displaying dissent democratically which is by approaching a court of law. The second problem with these dissenters is that they are fundamentally opposed to all sorts of commentary on religion or criticism of it, no matter how constructive it might be and are unwilling to reform and refine their own religion. Such is their intolerance that even euphemism isn’t a possible way out while commenting on critical religious matters.

A thorough analysis of the entire controversy surrounding blasphemy paints a very vindictive picture of what is actually going on. There are people who are abusing the freedom of speech and expression and simultaneously we have people waging dissent in the most undemocratic form. Extremism breeds extremism, fanaticism breeds fanaticism and hate breeds hate. This shall continue until and unless we do away with shrillness and resort to soberness.

Conflict Between Institutions is Dangerous for Democracy

Democracy is near decimation when intense institutional conflicts begin to arise. The contemporary scenario of democracy in India is indeed very critical. The Union Government is locking horns with the Army Chief in the Supreme Court of India and is engulfed in a tussle with the ex-chief of a premier space organization. Political chaos also resulted in the CAG revolting against the Government and that too in public domain. We had people occupying the power corridors accusing the judiciary of overreach during the CVC fiasco and also when the judiciary questioned the policy of “first come first serve”. In states like Karnataka we’ve seen the CM embroiled in a bitter war of words with the Governor and a virtual fight erupted between the Gujarat Governor and the State Council of Ministers on the issue of the appointment of the State Lokayukta and the matter ultimately went to a court of law.

Union Ministries and Agencies like Finance, Home Affairs, Rural Development and Planning Commission also appear to be in a mood of conflict, various states governments are also on collision course. State governments of Tamil Nadu and Kerala have been warring with one another on the issue of the Mullaperiyar Dam and Kerala has even accused an empowered committee appointed by the Supreme Court of bias. Innumerable confrontations are taking place between the Central Government and various State Governments with the States accusing the Centre of acting in a step motherly manner and the Centre responding by accusing the States of non-utilization of the funds granted by them. The ugly brawls between the Centre and States are visible threats to the principle of federalism. The list doesn’t seem to end. Such tussles need to be terminated to ensure that democracy doesn’t get subverted.