“The government seems to be contemplating how media can be restricted, how freedoms can be curtailed”

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Sebastian Paul, Former MP and Supreme Court lawyer

Is our tolerance level so low that we can’t take joke?
It is a cartoon drawn by an eminent cartoonist, when both Nehru and Babasaheb were alive and nobody saw anything objectionable in the cartoon at that time. Even the message conveyed in that cartoon is a constitutional issue, when India became a Republic. There was criticism even then that our constitutional machinery will function rather slowly, and will be an impediment for rapid progress. It was in that context that Shankar drew that cartoon. There is not anything objectionable in that cartoon unlike the Prophet cartoon which invoked religious sentiments. Political leaders need not be viewed in that angle. Even now there are people who believe that the Constitution allows for slow functioning of the country. Our Members of Parliament are belittling themselves with this incident.

Religious sentiments shall not be evoked by a caricature or cartoon. The Muslim sentiment is that the Prophet cannot be drawn. We feel that India is a liberal democracy, where expression of ideas [is allowed] in so many ways, then tolerance is required. If the Parliament is reacting in such a manner, then it would send a wrong signal.

Do you see this as an isolated incident or as a crackdown on freedom of expression?
Freedom of expression [is] where we [have] made progress. Even though our Constitution does not have anything explicitly mentioned, but with the simple statement of Freedom of Speech, our judiciary expanded the right in a big way incorporating Free Press and Artistic Expression through various seminal judgements. But what is happening in Bengal, 60 years after Independence? Even in Tamil Nadu, when MGR was chief minister, an editor was sent to jail for caricaturing him. The Tamil Nadu Assembly saw it as contempt of the House. The editor was sentenced six months in jail, but because of widespread protests, they had to recall the order. When a cartoon is reproduced in textbooks, the students will not only get an idea of the perception of the people when the constitution was in the making but also be introduced to cartoonists like Shankar. It is also a part of their education. I am unable to understand what prompted our honorable members to react in such a manner. It is an alarming situation, these are danger signals for future of our democracy. The government seems to be contemplating how media can be restricted, how freedoms can be curtailed. Even the judiciary. We are awaiting a judgement from the Supreme Court for issuing guidelines for court reporting. If we permit this further, it will result in something that is not in tune with the spirit of our constitution.

Were leaders more tolerant earlier?
Our leaders in the early years of the Republic were more tolerant. Nehru was a character drawn by Shankar frequently. Nehru complimented Shankar. Even though we were [still] experimenting with democracy, we were more democratic then. We could be more tolerant towards criticism then. But now we are moving towards a prurient society.

Given all this, what should be the ideal ambience for education?
Even in Kerala, claimed to be a media-friendly state, there are personal outbursts by religious institutions. There are agitations, and ‘objectionable’ portions are eventually withdrawn. Our students should be able to learn in such a way that there are not just facts, that there is always another side, another opinion. But our Parliament has sent an outrageous message to the people that ‘we will not tolerate anything’. I don’t know how someone like Kapil Sibal can bow to that pressure. Ambedkar was a venerable person and he is not a private property of any institution. He is the creator of our Constitution and we respect. It was a cartoon liked by him when he was alive.

Janani Ganesan is a Correspondent with Tehelka. 
janani@tehelka.com

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