Given the several interrelated circumstances leading up to it, the sentencing of Rahul Gandhi also looks somewhat unfair, and unsound
The Rahul Gandhi saga has once again brought up the issue of the limits of free speech, albeit in an indirect way, after a court in Surat found him guilty of criminal defamation and punishing him with a prison sentence of two years.
The decision, which will most likely be challenged in a higher court, is the first instance of any major Indian leader being sentenced to serve a prison term for words he spoke publicly. On most counts, and while juxtaposing it against several statements made by different leaders in Indian politics in the last decade or so, it was neither the worst nor the most offensive thing said; and in most people’s opinion, was not the most toxic.
It would be easy to advocate absolute free speech, and preach that its Siamese twin, the unspoken ‘right’ to offend people with ideas and words be made unrestricted, but that might be deemed unsuitable when the current level of maturity of the “mother of democracy” is considered. In this scenario, why not limit the legal punishment for free speech?
Given the several interrelated circumstances leading up to it, the sentencing of Rahul Gandhi also looks somewhat unfair, and unsound, both procedurally and in net impact. That Mr Gandhi must be sentenced to two years of imprisonment and lose his membership to Parliament because of a statement that has several interpretations at best rankles in particular.
Beyond the legal merits of the case, which are best addressed in courts, it asks of all Indians, and every single government agency that represents them: Can we be a democracy without free speech — without a reasonably fair amount of it at that and within a reasonably and fairly tolerant range? Are we going to be so blinded by visceral collective frenzy that the only thing that matters is that we not be offended by anyone whose speech opposes our interests?
Civil defamation seems to offer that balance — though not in the manner used in this case. For, it cannot be justified as a class action-type lawsuit, or as a political weapon choosing its targets with amazing selectivity.
In the case of Rahul Gandhi, most Indians who care about fairness and democracy, including those who oppose him politically and those who otherwise support the BJP, feel that both his conviction, its speed and manner, and the quantum of punishment as well as the alacrity of the response from the Lok Sabha secretariat add up to make the accusation of a witch-hunt seem rather appropriate.
No one should be imprisoned for a speech made as such. In the most emphatic manner, therefore, we argue that criminal defamation be abolished with immediate effect. In its year of G-20 presidency, India cannot afford to show its underbelly to the world.