-Ana Khan, Jaipur
What started out as the 9 year of the globally renowned Jaipur Literature Festival, ended on a bitter sweet note on 25 January, 2016. The closing session was a debate titled ‘Is freedom of speech absolute and unconditional?’ The discussion involved several media personalities like Kapil Mishra of AAP, writer Salil Tripathi, Suhel Seth, journalist Madhu Trehan, P. Sivakami, recent Padma Bhushan recipient Anupam Kher and JDU MP, Pavan K. Varma. It was moderated by Sanjoy Roy.
Madhu Trehan opened the session, speaking for the motion. She made a point with omitting apparently offensive or controversial words, while the audience applauded her enthusiasm and her witty take on the issue. She took the debate further by questioning India’s democracy; exercising control over what the citizens can see or hear is not a democratic practice. According to her, “The nation has the right to decide for themselves if the content available is suitable to watch or not.”
Her argument was countered by Anupam Kher; he uncensored all the words she beeped in her speech. He believed that every right entails a sense of responsibility. He also said that the rights and freedom India provides to its citizens are rare to find in another nation. The debate took a political edge when he compared one’s freedom of speech to abuse at home to the same freedom whilst abusing the country or calling politicians psychopaths. ‘Rules of the home should be rules of the country.’
While the audience chanted ‘Modi Modi’during his speech, his political counterpart, Kapil Mishra gave a legit opposing argument by saying there was a small group of the same people that was targeting expressions of free speech but people were free to call his Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) leaders whatever they wanted to and did.
Journalist and author Salil Tripathi spoke for the motion and said Freedom of speech is a right and not a privilege. Censorship doesn’t guarantee morality. The audience cheered when he said, “People burn books before they burn people; you can take away the writer but not the writing, it can be memorized.” Former diplomat Pavan K Varma added: “Reasonable restrictions are those which a sane society learns to accept for itself.”
Suhel Seth opposed the motion when he said, “Cherish the freedom you have but do not abuse someone else’s sensibility.”
After the concluding remarks by the moderator, the majority of the audience stood against absolute and unconditional freedom of speech.