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My rights end where yours begin

By Shambhavi Ravishankar
March 06, 2017 13:09 IST
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Freedom of speech and expression does not merit debate; it exists with conditions to regulate its use. However, a citizen's rights end where another citizen's begin, says Shambhavi Ravishankar.

Nothing in this world is absolute. Historically various scholars and thinkers from a variety of professional backgrounds have described rights and freedoms as legal concepts with inherent limitations.

The famous poet Alfred George Gardiner in his work "Pebbles on the Seashore", summed up this conundrum most beautifully. A person's freedom ends where another man's freedom begins. This fact has been affirmed from Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes to John Stuart Mill and Abraham Lincoln.

In a complex social structure, such as the one India has, courtesy of our diversity, delineating these boundaries is a herculean task.

In addition to this complicated affair, one must also consider the emotional aspect as well as educational differences. It is very easy to generate a single spark that ultimately causes a nation-wide fire in India.

Whether violent or non-violent, there is historical evidence to support our ability as Indians to come together in our reactions and efforts towards a cause.

It is not India alone that faces this challenge of free speech versus nationalism. All around the world, efforts have been made through the centuries for the protection of free speech to be an absolute one.

Free speech originated as need so as to give power to citizenry to voice dissent against despotic rulers.

Ideas themselves are tame. It is their expression that gives them power.

The more people that believe a certain idea the stronger it is and the greater power it has to change the status quo.

Thus far, human rights such as the right to freedom of speech and expression have been a privilege accorded to citizens of each nation based on their laws and Constitutions. They must flow from the law and be regulated in accordance with the law with respect to each nation's specific circumstances.

Therefore, practices which apply to one nation may not suit another.

Liberal thinking in its purest form presents an idealism that is aspirational, given the current conditions in the world. Absolute freedom and uniform application of laws and customs across nations is a challenging affair to achieve, to say the least.

Recent developments with Gurmehar Kaur, Shazia Ilmi, Umar Khalid and the various political influences have brought to light this age old debate.

What is nationalism? What is anti-national? Should there be limits on free speech and if so what are the parameters for deciding that limits have been crossed?

The Constitution of India answers some of these questions, and various court cases by the Supreme Court of India have clarified the different nuances of our fundamental rights, despite which the ideological debate continues both here and around the world.

With arguments being put forth from all sides on the issue, two aspects merit discussion -- the influence of politics in education and the influence of social media on free speech. Universities are supposed to be free spaces of discussion and debate. Students should be able to exchange ideas and thoughts without fear of repercussion.

However with social media coming in, it has become ridiculously easy to disseminate and discuss ideas. These ideas expressed through posts become viral with remarkable speed. They attract attention across political camps, and are used in a variety of ways.

Social media has made it much easier to identify and react to "anti-national" statements. This leads to "trolling" and levying of physical threats, where individual students are attacked, as opposed to their ideas getting the challenging. Instead of sparring with ideas, individuals are targeted.

Furthermore, the existence of societies on campuses around the country that have affiliations to political parties adds another layer of complications.

The question thus arises: does the presence of this political influence have a negative effect on the atmosphere of academic discussion on the campuses? The youth with their energy and idealism are at risk of being used in the name of fighting a noble cause, to further political ends.

It becomes difficult to ascertain whether protests and agitations are politically motivated or whether they are the views of the youth in our country.

Nobody wants or likes war, but at the same time if war is provoked unnecessarily no country will stay silent and allow itself to be ravaged by foreign forces.

One party blocks speaker X while another blocks speaker Y. There is therefore, truth and intolerance on both sides of the issue, with retaliations and reactionary statements flying from every camp.

Freedom of speech and expression exists for every person. What is being forgotten is that it is for the Judiciary to determine whether rights have been infringed, and whether "anti-national" conduct has occurred, not the self-appointed arbiters of justice.

Freedom of speech and expression does not merit debate; it exists with conditions to regulate its use. However, a citizen's rights end where another citizen's begin.
All the diverse opinions in the world cannot neglect cognizance of this fact.

If one has a right to speak, another has a right to object. Violence or threat thereof for whatever reason is unwarranted and has serious legal consequences.

These are facts that are true for all parts of the spectrum a given argument falls within.

The author is a freelance contributor at the Asian News International

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Shambhavi Ravishankar
Source: ANI