During the medieval ages, the scholastic church establishment did not allow the airing of non-conformist ideas. Those who had the courage to express what they felt, were accused of blasphemy and awarded deterrent punishments like stoning to death, death by drowning in a river or burning alive. Many others were condemned for the rest of their lives like “The Prisoner of Chillon”.
During the Mughal rule in India, the Sikh Gurus preached what they thought was right but the Mughal rulers did not relish this freedom. They persecuted the Sikh Gurus for their beliefs. Thus, Guru Arjun Dev, the fifth Guru of the Sikhs was made to sit on hot iron plates. Bhai Mati Das was sawed into two. Guru Teg Bahadur was beheaded in Delhi. The young sons of Guru Gobind Singh were buried alive in a wall.
During the British rule in India, many Indians expressed themselves openly against the tyranny of alien rule and fought for the Independence of the country. Freedom fighters were put behind bars, made to sleep on ice slabs or broken pieces of glass and forced to do manual labour. Lala Lajpat Rai, the Lion of Punjab, died in a police lathi-charge while demonstrating against the Simon Commission. Hundreds of Indians lost their lives at Jalianwala Bagh, as a result of brutal and indiscriminate police firing while expressing their views in public.
George Orwell, the famous British writer of celebrated novels like Animal Farm and 1984 criticised denial of freedom of expressing one’s ideas. In his ‘Essay on Liberty’, J.S. Mill, the English political philosopher, also advanced the view that there should be no limitations on the freedom of expression of one’s opinion and ideas. He declared that even if there are ten cranks, we should not limit their free opinion because it is just likely that one out of ten cranks might turn out to be a genius.
Similarly, even if one person wishes to express an opinion different from the opinion of the whole society, he should be allowed to do so. Sometimes, even the whole society can be wrong as it was when Socrates, Christ and Galileo gave their individual opinions. Later on, it was proved that they were right whereas their opponents were wrong.
In the modern age, Popper in his famous book Open Society and its Enemies criticised the concept of a closed society where human beings are reduced to the position of robots and sub-humans. But freedom of expression also carries with it a duty or a responsibility to the society.
It cannot be an unbridled expression. It has to be subject to such reasonable restrictions as the society may deem fit in the larger interest. Article 19 of the Indian Constitution gives to every citizen, the right of freedom of speech and expression. This right is not absolute. Reasonable restrictions on the exercise of this right can be imposed on the grounds of: (i) the security of the State, (ii) friendly relations with foreign States, (iii) incitement to offence, public order, decency or morality, defamation and contempt of court.
Thus, the right to freedom of expression is a valuable right of man. It is a fruit of democracy. It should be enjoyed, nursed and preserved. However, it should not be allowed to be misused as a licence by any person.