A RENOWNED human rights lawyer, Soli Sorabjee has been an authoritative voice on the freedom of expression debate. His books include The Laws of Press Censorship in India (1976) and The Emergency, Censorship and the Press in India 1975-77 (1977). The 81-year-old former attorney general tells Shonali Ghosal why definitions of obscenity differ on a case-to-case basis.
Is there such a thing as too much freedom of expression?
There’s never too much of freedom of expression except when it comes under one of the seven heads of Article 19 (2) when reasonable restrictions can be imposed. The law says that the restriction has to be reasonable, that it should not be excessive or disproportionate.
Is there a fine line that defines when an artist is exercising his freedom and when he is misusing it?
There isn’t a fine line. Essentially, one man’s lyric is another’s obscenity. Definitions differ on a case-to-case basis. Whether or not it is obscene must be judged by the standards of reasonable persons, not hypersensitive people who smell offence in every sentence.
How does the State conclude that a work of art is offensive enough to incite violence?
Religious feelings are very easily ruffled in India. To determine what is offensive, one has to take into account the community offended and not a few fanatics. If you say you don’t believe in the morals of the New Testament, that’s fine, but you can’t go around saying, “Jesus is a fraud.” You can’t abuse the founder of a religion and expect to get away with it.
Would an amendment to Article 19 (2) result in a better law?
The law isn’t ambiguous. Concepts like morality, decency and obscenity by themselves can’t be straitjacketed into questions of whether they should or should not be banned — except where the content in question is sexually explicit. For example, different people react differently to the novel Lolita. And in terms of contemporary notions, Lady Chatterley’s Lover would make you blush like a tomato.
Shonali Ghosal is a Correspondent with Tehelka.