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India actively limits free speech and that is what people want

Tolerance Is Declining Sharply, Especially Among Those Aged 18 To 34

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At the conclusion of the Group of Seven summit in the U.K. last week, the group's seven advanced economies, along with India, South Korea, Australia and South Africa, signed a joint statement in favor of freedom of expression.

The statement followed a session on open societies at which India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi was a keynote speaker. Attending virtually, Modi claimed that "democracy and freedom are a part of India's civilizational ethos."

In fact, when Modi was an opposition leader back in 2012, he tweeted in response to the then-Congress-led government's restrictions on free speech, "As a common man, I join the protest against the crackdown on freedom of speech!"

There is more than a certain irony here. Modi's government recently introduced new rules to govern the internet and social media that critics allege will reduce freedom of expression. The new rules follow a monthslong battle waged by the government against Twitter after the social media platform tagged content posted by Modi's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as manipulated media.

Last month Delhi Police, controlled by Modi's federal government, "visited" Twitter's offices, and the company says that it fears for the safety of its staff in India.

More recently, in the most populous state of Uttar Pradesh, a former Hindu cleric turned BJP Chief Minister, Yogi Adityanath, created police "first information reports." In the first step toward a criminal charge, the reports targeted Twitter, news portal The Wire and individual journalists -- all Muslim -- for sharing an unverified video of an alleged assault on an elderly Muslim man by Hindu attackers.

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Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, pictured in August 2019.   © AP

Data bears out that India does poorly on freedom of expression. In a recent report by Justitia, a Danish think tank, India was in the lowest rung of countries when measuring public support for free speech, just below Russia and above Turkey. That tallies with the relatively low level of free speech in practice, as measured by the freedom of expression index created by V-Dem, a Swedish research center.

But perception does not always match reality. Justitia's perception index showed an improvement between 2019 and 2020, suggesting increased public support for free speech. However, India fell markedly over that same period in V-Dem's free speech index.

Still, a closer look at the Justitia report reveals a disturbing picture regarding support for free speech in India. Asked specifically if respondents supported the ability to criticize the government, India came at the very bottom, slightly worse than neighboring Pakistan. India was also in the lower rung when people were asked if they supported the right to offend minority groups or offend religion.

Similarly, on whether it should be permissible to express support for gay and lesbian relationships, or to insult the national flag, India again fared poorly. In fact, on tolerating statements offensive to their own religion, India -- along with Poland and Israel -- has become significantly less tolerant in recent years. As the report notes, this is unsurprising given that the relationship between politics and religion has been a fierce subject of public debate in all three countries.

Perhaps it is not surprising that support for free speech is relatively weak in India. The constitutional guarantee for free speech is much weaker than in most Western countries, notably the United States, and India still has laws against sedition, which constrain the extent to which it is permissible to criticize the state.

While in opposition, Modi and the BJP called out restrictions on free speech, including censorship of the internet, implying that matters would change if they ever won power. But after winning the 2014 elections, the BJP moved in the opposite direction. Part of this shift may simply be a reflection of the politics of moving from opposition to the government. But there might be something deeper going on.

As Justitia executive director Jacob Mchangama argues in Foreign Policy magazine, people tend to want free speech only for themselves and views similar to theirs.

Unfortunately, the prospects for increased public pressure to strengthen free expression are dim. Even in the U.S., the global bastion of free speech, support for free expression varies considerably across gender, education and political affiliation.

As the Justitia report notes, women in the U.S. are less likely to support the right to make statements that are offensive than men, and younger people aged from 18 to 34 are markedly less tolerant of potentially offensive speech than older people. Meanwhile, higher levels of educational attainment tend to correlate with greater support for free speech.

Respondents who identified as supporters of former President Donald Trump were more supportive of free expression on most issues compared to supporters of President Joe Biden, the one exception being insulting the national flag.

Fortunately, the U.S. has probably the most robust protections for free expression in the world, which have survived the extreme political polarization at present. In India, by contrast, there appears to be a consensus among all major political parties that free speech must be restricted. This is unlikely to change, as this appears to be exactly what the Indian public wants.

Rupa Subramanya is a researcher and commentator.