Though the Indian Constitution reflects the classical rationale of free speech, the state has time and again punished thought and suppressed ideas.
Plutarch's Life of Dion contains an interesting anecdote of Dionysius, an avowed and established tyrant, killing his captain, Marsyas. Marsyas had dreamt of cutting Dionysius's throat, and Dionysius killed Marsyas on account of his dream. He based his decision on the assumption that Marsyas would not have dreamt of such a thing by night if he had not thought of it by day.
In his seminal work The Spirit of Laws, Montesquieu states, “The laws do not take upon them to punish any other than overt acts. The thought must be joined with some sort of action”.
Montesquieu's words are completely lost on the Indian state, and it has time and again assumed the character of a present-day Dionysius by punishing mere thoughts. The latest Dionysius is the Tamil Nadu State government, which has banned the screening of the movie Dam 999 in the State.
Dam 999 is apparently a love story set against the backdrop of the Mullaperiyar dam controversy. The Tamil Nadu government has banned the screening of the movie on the ground that it might lead to public order problems in the State. This amounts to suppression of ideas that supposedly pose a threat to public order.
Indeed, the history of independent India is replete with examples of the government curbing free speech.
One major reason for this is that governments act without an understanding of the underlying rationale of free speech.
There are three main rationales for protection of freedom of speech, which are also reflected in the vision with which our Constitution was drafted.
The first is the self-government rationale, which provides that it is indispensable to protect free speech for a robust democratic process. Protection of free speech is essential for people to communicate on political matters, which in turn enables them to fully participate in democratic affairs.
The second rationale is fashioned on laissez faire in the economic realm and conceives that, in a marketplace of ideas, the better ideas eventually prevail through competition. In the words of Justice Holmes of the U.S. Supreme Court, “the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market” (Abrams v. United States).
The last rationale treats freedom of speech as promotion of every individual's self-fulfillment and autonomy. This rationale posits that protection of free speech is essential for human identity.
Glanville Austin, in his exposition on the Indian Constitution (Working A Democratic Constitution, The Indian Experience), indicates that the core vision of the Indian Constitution can be summed up as having the following foundational strands:
(i) Protecting national unity and establishing the institutions and spirit of democracy
(ii) Fostering a social revolution to better the lot of Indians.
The spirit of democracy can be strengthened if citizens are able to fully participate in democratic affairs (self-government rationale). Similarly, for fostering a social revolution and to improve the lot of Indians, it is necessary that the society engages itself in the pursuit of truth, and all citizens be given every opportunity to realize their potential (self-fulfillment and autonomy). These rationales for free speech thus represent an important resource in our constitutional tradition that the Indian state keeps ignoring at its own peril.
Thus, if India has to evolve, a better understanding of our constitutional traditions is a must. And if anti-speech acts persist, it reflects nothing but the Dionysius nature of the Indian state.