Free speech is crit­i­cal to a na­tion’s great­ness

The Asian Age - - Oped - Aakar Pa­tel

If you ask In­di­ans what sort of In­dia they want, al­most all will say they want a pow­er­ful and pros­per­ous one. The most pow­er­ful na­tion in the world is the United States of Amer­ica, which is also one of the most pros­per­ous. It has an econ­omy 10 times the size of In­dia’s and it has one- fourth the pop­u­la­tion. This means that in terms of Gross Do­mes­tic Prod­uct, it is 40 times In­dia’s size per per­son.

We want to be a na­tion like the United States of Amer­ica, which is rich, large, mil­i­tar­ily pow­er­ful and feared and re­spected by the whole world. There is an­other type of pow­er­ful na­tion which is China. It is also rich ( China’s econ­omy is six times big­ger than In­dia’s) and strong mil­i­tar­ily.

What is the dif­fer­ence be­tween the pow­ers of these two na­tions? I think that comes down to an­other ques­tion: Who and what makes a coun­try pow­er­ful? In In­dia, the as­sump­tion is that it is the gov­ern­ment. It is a strong leader like the cur­rent Prime Min­is­ter who will pro­duce some­thing spe­cial with his ge­nius. He will do the work that is re­quired to trans­form In­dia. I have known PM Naren­dra Modi per­son­ally for many years and I can say that he him­self also be­lieves that.

China has more or less fol­lowed the same phi­los­o­phy of the gov­ern­ment tak­ing the lead. It is un­de­ni­ably true that the Chi­nese peo­ple are very tal­ented and ex­tremely hard­work­ing and if you go the na­tions of South­east Asia, like Thai­land, Malaysia and Sin­ga­pore, and to places like the western United States, you will no­tice this qual­ity in Chi­nese im­mi­grants. But it has been the Com­mu­nist gov­ern­ment and one- man rule that has led the way to their mod­ern strength. In many ways, how­ever, this has been a lim­ited strength. The lack of free­dom has meant that China is not par­tic­u­larly in­ven­tive. And this will ul­ti­mately stop


In the US, the as­sump­tion and the be­lief is that it is the peo­ple who make the na­tion and the peo­ple who will bring great­ness. All that is re­quired from the gov­ern­ment is to give them the space and free­dom to do so.

The First Amend­ment of the Amer­i­can Con­sti­tu­tion was writ­ten 227 years ago. It says that the gov­ern­ment can make no law that re­stricts free speech. If you are won­der­ing what that means, it means that one can say the most hate­ful and vul­gar things in the United States with­out fear of be­ing called anti- na­tional or “ur­ban Naxal”. Mod­ern pornog­ra­phy comes out of mag­a­zines like Play­boy and Pent­house which were taken to court for ob­scen­ity and won the cases be­cause of the First Amend­ment. US gov­ern­ments con­tin­ued to write laws restrict­ing free speech but their courts con­tin­ued to up­hold the rights of the speaker, even when the speech was dis­liked or ra­bid or vul­gar.

It is this free­dom that has in large part pro­duced Amer­i­can great­ness. it from match­ing In­deed, across the his­tory of what is called the Western world, the em­pha­sis has been on in­di­vid­ual free­doms and the right to defy author­ity and so­ci­ety in­tel­lec­tu­ally. It goes back to the be­gin­ning and the an­cient Greeks ( called Yu­nani or Ya­vana in In­dia). Socrates was sen­tenced to death about 2,400 years ago be­cause he re­fused to ac­cept the Athe­nian form of gov­ern­ment. But he was al­ready very old at the time that he was sen­tenced, show­ing that for decades he was tol­er­ated in Athens. Aris­to­tle and Plato pro­duced the­o­ries that re­jected the Gods as the Greeks knew them, but they were not only al­lowed to work, but were revered for their orig­i­nal think­ing and their de­fi­ance.

If there is a pe­riod when the Western world saw de­cline, it is the pe­riod in which free think­ing was curbed, as it is be­ing in In­dia to­day. This pe­riod is called the Mid­dle Ages. A mix of feu­dal­ism, il­lit­er­acy and the Church pro­duced this pe­riod of de­cay. In this same pe­riod, the Is­lamic king­doms in Bagh­dad and south­ern Spain val­ued learn­ing and free speech and they be­came great pow­ers. The his­tory of man has usu­ally sup­ported the Amer­i­can form of a na­tion’s rise to great­ness rather than the Chi­nese form. It is free­dom that pro­duces great­ness and not uni­for­mity.

In In­dia we have tra­di­tion­ally had a lot of free­dom when it comes to ex­pres­sion about the na­ture of God and of re­al­ity. But there is not much free­dom when it comes to ex­pres­sions of the na­ture of the na­tion and its peo­ple. The lev­els of tol­er­ance are low both from the gov­ern­ment and so­ci­ety on many things.

Un­for­tu­nately, we have not had much sup­port from our courts as the Amer­i­cans have had. And so there has not been much re­sis­tance to the sup­pres­sion of free speech. This is why most In­di­ans to­day be­lieve that it is not only wrong to say cer­tain things, but also that there should be no right to say them.

Till we con­tinue to go down that path, true great­ness will elude this na­tion, no mat­ter how bril­liant the in­di­vid­ual at the helm may be.

Aakar Pa­tel is a writer, colum­nist and ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of Amnesty In­ter­na­tional ( In­dia)

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