“I wish I knew how
It would feel to be free
I wish I could break
All the chains holding me
I wish I could say
All the things that I should to say
Say 'em loud say 'em clear
For the whole round world to hear”
So starts Nina Simone’s all-time classic "I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free".
While Simone’s haunting lyrics alluded to her desire to live in a world free from racism and segregation, her words still resonate in the world we inhabit today particularly when it comes to freedom of thought and expression.
Freedom of speech ought to be one of the most cherished and celebrated democratic values in our society. Yet, recent history suggests that our very ‘free’ press is, in fact, not that free after all.
Despite living in the 21st century and in a democratic society that is supposed to value and protect freedom of expression, we are not free to speak our minds. In fact, we have to constantly censor our every thought and word. We are restricted and constrained in our ways of expression, and at times, we even find ourselves in a situation where we are either banned to speak the truth or harshly punished for doing so.
It appears that at this particular moment in time, freedom of speech is more of an idealistic concept rather than the reality.
The Charlie Hebdo killings in Paris and the subsequent shooting in Copenhagen – an apparent response to drawings of the Prophet Muhammed by Swedish artist Lars Vilks – are examples of the bloody price some have had to pay for attempting to preserve the right to speak their minds.
Both of the incidents, though seemingly independent and unrelated episodes, were committed by the same kind of people: highly disillusioned and misguided extremists with the single intention of muting our voices - voices that speak against their beliefs and their convictions.
Voices that speak and stand for the truth.
Voices that are a threat to their status, their power, and their tyrannical rule.
In an attempt to take away that voice, the culprits used violence, fear, and intimidation as means to let us know, beyond a doubt, that there is a heavy price to pay for going against them and speaking our mind.
Unfortunately, however, these attacks on our freedom of speech are not solely performed by ‘a few disillusioned and misguided extremists’.
More often than not, the very institutions that supposedly respect and support this freedom are also the ones that continuously attempt to limit and constrain our ways and forms of expression.
India, for all its democratic values, is one of the countries that is at the helm of this practice, and that is noted for its harsh and rigorous application of censorship laws.
In 1989, for instance, the government banned Salman Rushdie's “The Satanic Verses” on the grounds that the novel is a covert attack on Islam.
“The Moor's Last Sigh”, another novel by Rushdie met the same fate and was prohibited in India.
More recently, the Anushka Sharma-starrer ‘NH10’ was subjected to a slew of cuts before it was given an Adult certification by Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC), while the page-to-screen adaptation “Fifty Shades of Grey” was banned entirely from the cinemas due to its sexual content.
In fact, the CBFC has been at the centre of a number of recent controversies over its increasingly conservative certification process.
One example of its unreasonable and absurd censorship methods is CBFC ‘s chief Pahlaj Nihalani list of words to be banned in films.
While the list, rather surprisingly, includes Carlinesque words, it also bans the use of words such as “masturbation” and “Bombay”.
While union minister Rajyavardhan Rathore has promised to review Nihalani’s order issued, the whole episode has cast a shadow over the CBFC as an institution.
As actor Amir Khan, whose film “PK” was put under a lot of scrutiny by the board as well, noted in an interview, CBFC is not a censor board, but “a body that certifies films”. It is not its task and responsibility, or even its right to censor, cut, and ban films.
“I think it is important as an Indian to understand our fundamental rights and raise this issue”, Khan said.
“We should vibrantly discuss that our freedom of expression should not be curbed. We should try and always protect our freedom of expression.”
And while CBFC CEO Shravan Kumar argues that “the idea [behind CBFC] is not to curb the creative freedom of the filmmakers”, the majority disagrees.
Filmmaker Mahesh Bhatt, for instance, compared the CBFC to the thought police, and urged the public to protest against its overt attempt to limit our ways of expression and deny us our freedom of speech: “The CBFC is free to do what it wishes, but there is no lock, no gate, no bolt that it can set upon the freedom of our minds. This is a battle which they will never win because this is India.”
The truth of the matter is that people will always have different opinions. And while it is, indeed, everyone’s prerogative to disagree with and dislike whatever is being said and done, while one might not always agree with, or even accept and respect other people’s point of view and beliefs, and while, at times, someone’s words might even shock, offend, or even hurt, this should never be a reason to silence those voices and minds.
In a society made out of billions of individuals with contrasting, independent thoughts and opinions, it is only natural that there should be differences of opinion, disagreements, and disputes.
These differences of opinion, disagreements, and disputes, however, ought to never be used as an excuse to deny someone the right to speak freely and without fear of repercussions.
"I do not agree with what you have to say, but I'll defend to the death your right to say it", said Voltaire once, and this is precisely the point.
Even if one does not agree with other people, even if what is being said goes against everything that one holds sacred, the right to say it in the first place is equally sacred and is worth defending and fighting for.
Regardless of whether or not one likes what one hears, whether or not one agrees, and whether or not one is offended, no one should ever have the right to take away someone else’s voice for that goes against everything that democracy stands for.
“If we do not believe in freedom of speech for those we despise we do not believe in it at all” – Noam Chomsky