Freedom of speech, Truth and its politics

By Md. Ali,,

New Delhi: “If we want to ensure freedom of expression then, there has to have a proper balance between rights and responsibilities of freedom of expression,” said Ilyas Sharfuddin.

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He was giving a talk on “Freedom of Expression: Rights & Responsibilities, Religious and Modern Perspective” at Shree Ram Center here on August 8, 2010. The talk was about spreading the message of freedom of expression, its rights and responsibilities in the light of religious scriptures and modern day legal systems and constitutions

Explaining his idea further, Mr. Sharfuddin pointed out that Freedom of Speech is very important in order to bring peace and harmony in this world but the problem is that usually people compartmentalize this idea. Compartmentalization means when people approach this idea in isolation and don’t see it in its wholeness.

For instance, some countries have provided to its citizens only rights of freedom of expression without any responsibility, like UK, US and countries in Europe. There are other countries which burden their citizens only with responsibilities of freedom of speech and there are countries which have a blanket ban on the very idea of freedom of speech, he said.

Freedom of speech and religion compatible

Mr. Sharfuddin also emphasized the need to take scriptural guidance along with this balancing between rights and responsibilities of freedom of expression.

He highlighted the fact that religious scriptures of Islam, Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity, Zorastarism, Sikhism and Buddhism speak about speaking the Truth and not speaking falsehood in any case. They emphasize not fearing anyone while speaking truth, and speaking truth in gracious manner. For instance Islam stresses on speaking truth with wisdom, beautiful preaching and argue in the best way, he said.

But while encouraging speaking truth in any case, all religions also say one cannot put life, wealth, honor of anyone in danger. All modern day constitutions, including UN Charter of Human Rights speak the same, using freedom of expression with care and with full responsibility without harming anyone. He concluded by saying that, for a constructive society one needs to use this freedom with force and with care.

Simplistic way of looking at Truth

But some might also regard Mr. Sharfuddin’s way of looking at freedom of speech vis-a-vis truth, as a very simplistic and almost naive way of looking at freedom of expression and truth, because it doesn’t take into account the involvement of politics in the making of truth.

Whose truth?

Talking to, Dr. Shankar Dutt, Professor of Comparative Literature in Patna University pointed out that, Mr. Sharfuddin’s way at looking at freedom of speech is based on truth. But the main problem is that he hasn’t defined truth, which actually nobody can because truth has always been relative and it has always been a debated notion in all the historical periods,” he said.

“Whose truth are you talking about? Because people, who prevent people from voicing their dissent and disagreement, justify their act only on the basis of what they say, is Truth for them,” questioned Mr. Dutt.

For instance, the whole controversy over James Laine’s book, “Shivaji- the Hindu King in Muslim India.” Shiv Sena and Marathi groups oppose it on the grounds that the book contains some false information about Shivaji which the groups regard as ‘Untruth’. So who is saying truth here, Marathi groups or James Laine?

Mr. Dutt pointed out another instance. Government of India calls a group of Kashimiri people as militants but people of Kasmir regard them as ‘freedom fighters’.

He questioned; “Should we regard them as militant because Indian state is saying so? What is truth here?”

Mr. Ilyas Sharfuddin is the director of Islamic Center of Devine Education (ICODE). ICODE is an Aurangabad based registered society, which works for the spread of analytical view of Islam.