Many of my Indian American friends, generally a well-informed group, are often surprised to learn that their resident Indian cousins don’t have the kind of freedom of speech they routinely enjoy in the United States. They assume quite reasonably that in India too, just like in the United States—both celebrated as exemplars of robust democracies—there are constitutional guarantees against governmental restrictions on the freedom of speech and the press. This is unfortunately not so.

Some time ago, while discussing the details of the content the editorial staff of an Indian newspaper would expect in a column, I was told that I was free to write about anything I wanted. But I was cautioned to stay clear of any criticism of the powers that be. Not just in general terms, I was told not to find fault with two specific politicians in power, whom I cannot name here for obvious reasons (privacy being only one of them.)

That happens in India but will not happen in the United States. Here’s why.

The difference arises from the constitutions of the two. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (the first of 10 items that is the U.S. “Bill of Rights”) states, in part, that “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press …” The important bit is that the U.S. Constitution does not grant freedom of speech because that freedom is not for it to grant or withhold. The freedom of speech exists prior to the constitution; the amendment merely recognizes that fact by explicitly prohibiting any law that may tamper with it.

As it happens, the First Amendment to the Indian constitution, introduced by Mr J. Nehru in 1950 also, among other matters, deals with freedom of speech and of the press. There are two major distinctions, though. First, I cannot quote the Indian amendment in its entirety here. The United States First amendment is only 45 words long and is in plain English; the Indian counterpart is around 1,750 words of impenetrable legalese.

Second, the Indian amendment grants the right to free speech. What the constitution grants, the constitution can also take away. In the finer details it says in essence that Indians are free to speak or write whatever they wish—provided the government agrees with it.

In short, you may speak or write admiringly about the emperor’s new clothes but you cannot point out that perhaps the emperor is naked. In fact, you are tacitly urged by the emperor to write encomiums on the brilliance of his attire.

You may ask, what does “tacitly urged” mean here? It means that when money speaks, you don’t need to. The Indian Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (I&B) has a very, very large budget. (Why India has to have what amounts to a ministry of government propaganda is a matter for another day.) Currently, it’s about Rs. 4,000 crores, or about US$ 600 million, a year. That’s the central budget; I presume the states have their own I&B budgets. Part of that humongous amount is spent on government advertisements in newspapers. Ruling politicians have the power to financially ruin any newspaper by withholding ads.

Even cognitively challenged people— and people who run newspapers are not stupid—know which side the bread is buttered, if you get my drift. But even if you lay that carrot aside (pardon the mixed metaphor), you have to mind that heavy stick. There are literally thousands of pages of rules and regulations that apply to all kinds of organizations, including publishing. No one really knows everything about what they are but it is quite easy to run afoul of some regulation or the other, if an inquiry was to be initiated against any business.

Publishing anything that the government is likely to take serious offense to is akin to publishing an invitation to officialdom to please come and shut down the business on some pretext or the other; and also to audit the accounts; and to get an income tax raid done on your home immediately; and file a few cases against your business, which the courts will take decades to settle.

The freedom of speech and of the press form part of the foundation of a free society. The other rights such as the right to choose who shall be entrusted with governance—democracy and all that —are rendered meaningless if one is ignorant about the deeds and misdeeds of those who govern. The search for good governance is bound to be fruitless if one has to do it blindfolded, which is what it amounts to when people lack the freedom to examine the government critically, fearlessly and frankly.

Perhaps Indians need to fight and win some real freedom, and not just be satisfied with dubious nominal freedoms that are granted only provisionally and exercised rarely for fear of government reprisals.

Atanu Dey, Ph.D., is an economist. His blog “Atanu Dey on India’s Development” is at deeshaa.org. Connect on twitter @atanudey

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