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DC Edit | Define free speech as a right


Published on: July 9, 2023 | Updated on: July 9, 2023

Congress leader Rahul Gandhi (PTI)

Rahul Gandhi will pursue his appeal against his conviction on the grounds of criminal defamation in the highest court of the land after the Gujarat high court dismissed his plea. The question the Supreme Court must address is whether this near-unique ruling in a sessions court that led to the disqualification of a leader and former president of the second largest national party in terms of legislative strength stands up to the strictest scrutiny over whether it is just and impartial. And does it negate the right of free speech and expression?

Calumny has been a rather badly abused form of speech not only in Indian politics. Delving into recent history, a series of comments aimed at individual politicians may be said to have emanated from the time Mrs Sonia Gandhi aimed her "Maut ka Saudagar" invective against Mr Narendra Modi. It was later serialised in his diatribes against the Gandhis. Rahul Gandhi’s remarks, of which the 2019 poll comment linking the Modi surname with thievery, is a snide one among many that has ill served the Indian polity and manner of speaking in public.

Indian politicians holding elected office have been disqualified in several corruption cases as well as murder cases. But the action and reaction in those cases are guided by clearcut logic in rendering them ineligible for participating in the legislative process, however committed they are to taking up public causes as in being a neta of the people.

Remarkably, the Rahul Gandhi case may even have set a precedent in another populous democracy in Brazil where the far-right former President Jair Bolsonaro has been disqualified from standing in elections for eight years up to 2030 for abusing "his power and casting unfounded doubts on the country’s electronic voting system".

A Brazilian judge said "populism reborn from the flames of hateful, antidemocratic speech that promotes heinous disinformation" has been rejected, which sounds too much like justifying what appears to be a predetermined course of action against a national leader.

What must be determined, regardless of how awkward our leaders’ propensity appears in their stretching the line where free speech ends and abuse begins, is the limits of freedom of speech, it being one of the foundations of the democratic system Indians pay allegiance to. Once again, it is the judiciary’s duty to define the rights and the responsibilities they entail.