Maithreyi Kamalanathan, a 2016 India Fellow, talks explicitly about her journey since she first learned about 'freedom of expression' and how her understanding of the term has evolved within the Indian political and cultural context today.
The idea of “Freedom of Expression” sounds so much like an oxymoron to me these days. Two contrasting ideas nestled together so beautifully. Apparently the term freedom and expression do hardly ever go together. At least in the current context of our Indian society.
The first time I learnt about this strange concept was from my eighth standard history textbook. It appears as a small line among the "Rights and Duties of a Citizen". You had to memorize all of them to scrape through your final examinations. No one wondered what it actually meant to the country, our lives, our times, and before that. It was just an easy way to score ten marks out of fifty back then.
If this comprised the civics part of it, a parallel idea that fetched us another ten marks was that essay on the Indian struggle for independence. I remember highlighting the dates and names of national leaders in black ink while the not so important details were taken care of by the boring blue – “Freedom is my birthright” was one of them. Looking back, the very same year that I learnt about freedom of expression was when I developed conflicting ideas with the religious ideologies that my school strongly believed in (the concept of religion in general, to be precise).
I was too naïve back then to express my views explicitly. Although, it did spare me the luxury of not having to go through those long lectures on my sinful behavior, an average student is curbed off the rights to express her views in Indian schools, isn’t it?
Being a fresh journalism graduate now, when I think of my grad school days, we did have the space to reflect, debate, and fight about our views on clashing ideologies. But that was only within the safe environment of a classroom; only during the forty-five-minute lecture on the constitution of India or political science. Then none had the time to look back and wonder if we would ever do this given a larger platform which isn’t safe enough; a platform that had harsh consequences. Neither did I. In a recent assignment to check the awareness on freedom of expression guaranteed by the Indian constitution, among common men, we happened to document the views of an old man we encountered on our way. A simple yet complex idea that he put across was that of fear. He said that although we all want to express everything we want to; we all are driven by fear. Watch the interview here.
When I say freedom of expression, I do not mean only harsh criticisms about political parties or state propagandas. It’s inclusive of appreciation of bizarre ideas, questioning your math teacher’s intellect; the wok ethics of the team leader in your office; the timeliness of a government official at the passport office or even something as simple as listening to what one has to say. And that is the ugly truth behind all these complex theories. We all want to speak, yet do not. Maybe we can’t. We fear the consequences that follow; the responsibilities we bear and most importantly,we hardly ever see anyone questioning it either.
Having said that, is freedom actually our birthright? Clearly not. This great Indian society, unfortunately does not provide us with that luxury. Somewhere while growing up, we began to believe that respect meant suppressing your right to express and being bold, an equivalent of arrogance. So here we are, having forgotten what shapes a healthy society: opinions, conversations, individual thinking and the ability to listen to what the other has to say.
Because these serious concepts of a citizen’s rights are still mere tools that let you pass your history examination, maybe to fetch a secure government job in the future. These texts just lay there idly waiting for redemption from what we have become instead: a society that takes offense on everything that is being thrown at it or gives a damn about the luxury that it already has.