Leaders must behave based on realisation that their words could trigger unacceptable actions by their followers
The Supreme Court’s ruling that additional restrictions cannot be imposed on people’s representatives, including ministers, with respect to freedom of speech and expression is welcome for several reasons.
Article 19 (1) of the Constitution guarantees all citizens freedom of speech and expression while Article 19 (2) lists six grounds to impose reasonable restrictions on it. It will be violative of basic constitutional principles of equality if a category of people is subjected to more controls than usual just because they are part of the legislature or the executive. Any other decision by the apex court would have created another category of citizens with lesser rights; and given the curious way we take such restrictions, it would have created in due course another class of privileged citizens. We have too many layers in power structure; we cannot afford more.
Democracy is all about winning the confidence of the people; freedom of speech and expressions are powerful tools in the hands of political parties and leaders to communicate their points of view to their audience and gain their concurrence. In fact, their rights mean the rights of the people at large because the latter have a right to be informed before taking decisions. Additional leash on the tongues of leaders would in fact get translated into obstacles in the ears of the citizens. They would strangle the rights of both the communicator and the recipients, resulting in poor decisions by the latter.
Hate speeches are indeed a reality of our times and they are used by politicians, even those sitting at the top echelons of our polity, to divide people and further their political agenda. The court has clarified that a mere statement cannot be acted upon; a person can be proceeded against only of it comes in the way of the rights of other people. Another bench of the Supreme Court had recently decried hate speeches and directed certain state governments to book their authors. This shows that there is enough manoeuvrability in the laws to show an erring person his place.
All freedoms are best exercised in self-restraint. It will be best suited to leave the choice to exercise the freedoms to the individual. There is only so much the law can do in a democracy; intervention and supervision at every point of citizen’s behaviour are uncalled for and impractical. The rope must be pretty long and the law must stretch its arms only when a citizen’s behaviour encroaches on the rights of other citizens.
At the same time, as a judge noted in the separate judgment, it should work well if political parties form a code of conduct to regulate and control the actions and speech of its functionaries and members.
The State need not intervene there; it will be best left to the people who are the ultimate arbiters of power to decide who can be vested with responsibilities. The leaders must behave based on the realisation that their words, especially when they are in power, could trigger unacceptable actions by their followers which could impact some other people. And should it happen, they must be made to answer both before the court of law and the court of the people.