The freedom of speech and an ‘adolescent India’


Tocqueville defines the maturity of a nation as the capacity of the people of that nation to act responsibly in the face of social flux.The rapid growth in national power, along with the unbridled freedom of economic power, has given Indians something that our predecessors never had.

Simultaneously, the tide of events that has rocked the world has not passed by India. So, has India behaved responsibly in light of all this? Is India mature? Let us test this from the perspective of freedom of speech.

Freedom of speech and expression (FSE):

Freedom of speech is one of the most cherished human freedoms. The Constitution of India, too, declares that Indians possess this freedom, but makes it subject to the interest of public order, or the sovereignty and integrity of India.

We believe that the framers of the Constitution accepted this watering down of this fundamental freedom, simply because the notion of unfettered freedom of speech was foreign to us.

Article 19(1) in The Constitution Of India states that:(1) All citizens shall have the right(a) to freedom of speech and expression;(b) to assemble peaceably and without arms;(c) to form associations or unions;(d) to move freely throughout the territory of India;(e) to reside and settle in any part of the territory of India; and(f) omitted(g) to practise any profession, or to carry on any occupation, trade or business It is a fundamental right which is enforceable in the courts.

History of freedom of speech:

The concept of freedom of speech is a western notion. While some form of freedom may have existed in ancient Greece, the real freedom of speech, as we understand it today, was propounded by Voltaire and Rousseau. The freedom is not the freedom of liberalism which was expressed by Voltaire when he said ‘I wholly disapprove of what you say and will defend to the death your right to say it.”’

There is nothing in our soil that suggests that this freedom took root here. B.R. Ambedkar, in his Writings and Speeches, notes this in relation to ancient India: “‘As to freedom of speech it exists. But it exists only for those who are in favour of the social order.

There is some evidence that the freedom of expression existed within state-ordained constructs. The content of the debates of Adi Shankara or Saint Thirugnana Sambandar seem remarkably liberal. Yet, this freedom did not extend to criticism of the king or his royal policies. A man who spoke ill of a king did not live long enough to see the effect. Hence, free speech was within state-defined boundaries.

On the other hand, the freedom of speech and thought that sparked the minds of western thinkers was the freedom from such limits. Bertrand Russell’s masterpiece on western philosophy traces the history of free thought, to its culmination, where a man’s right to think freely supersedes his duty of obedience to the state. The right to not just think freely but also to criticise the state is very fundamental to western notions of democracy.

The British Raj obviously did not tolerate free speech, and our thoughts remained manacled until 1947. In 1947, our nation was born, and suddenly, in 1950, we were free to express ourselves.

Progress that has been faltering

The first 50 years of freedom were spent in framing the contours of this freedom. The outline of what this freedom exactly was came to be created through a series of judicial decisions which recognised this freedom in a restricted form, defining more by exception than by rule. This faltering progress is consistent with the infancy of a nation, trying to define its relationship with its citizenry.

The 1990s and 2000s brought with it unprecedented economic progress, and brought us to the last decade — and also the transition from infancy to adolescence. This adolescence has not brought with it free thought, but rather, a strong opposition to it — by other Indians, who disagree.

The muzzling of unpopular opinions is now done through mob power, actions for defamation, social media blackouts and vetoes and the like. Calls for bans and boycotts of films and books are done for the silliest of reasons.

Thus, we see for the first time that the freedom of speech is under threat not only vertically (that is to say, from the state) but also horizontally (that is to say, from other citizens).

Free speech is unpopular when it unsettles the existing order. People feel uneasy when someone stands up and says we have been doing things wrong and that things must change.

Therefore, people maintain the status quo by suppressing unpopular speech. This enables the state to step in and define the framework within which speech is free. And when this happens, we have only the illusion of free speech, and real freedom is lost.

The mob, its dangers

Indians seek to shut down the opinions and expressions of others when they feel threatened by it. This sense of insecurity along with aggression is the hallmark of adolescence and runs as a common thread through all the oppressive actions we have noticed above. We seek strength in numbers. The mob provides us the comfort and the anonymity to suppress opinions and views that we disagree with. Once all dissenting thought is suppressed, we will find only views that echo our own.

This trend, if not arrested, can lead to a nation’s inhabitants surrendering their independence to a domineering public opinion. This, in turn, yields to persons depending on a doting, parent-like guardian state for all “freedom”.

Most recently, the Supreme Court of India in its judgement in Kaushal Kishore’s case (2023) declared that the fundamental rights of Indians are exercisable not only vertically but also horizontally.

The question before the Court in this case was whether the fundamental rights (including the freedom of speech) can be claimed other than against the state or its instrumentalities. The Court concluded that such fundamental rights can be enforced even against persons other than the state and its instrumentalities.


This judgement holds the key as to how India can emerge from its adolescence. If every citizen enforces their fundamental freedoms not only against the state but against each other, to the fullest extent, we will then seize back the power to define our own freedoms. Our failure to do so will result in us becoming an obedient and bovine citizenry which implicitly obeys the false credo that nothing can be done unless expressly permitted.

The demand for MGNREGS work is unmet


The allocation for MGNREGA in the Budget is ₹60,000 crore. This is less than 0.2% of the GDP, the lowest ever allocation as a percentage of GDP. World Bank economists had estimated that the allocation should be 1.6% of the GDP.

Status of MGNREGS:

In the last two years, the new financial year began with more than one-fourth of the allocation as pending wages from previous years. Assuming a conservative estimate that the next financial year will begin with pending wages of ₹15,000 crore and accounting for inflation, in real terms, the allocation for MGNREGA will be less than ₹45,000 crore.

Aided by a complex technical apparatus, there has been a steady centralisation of the programme architecture even as wages for most States remain lower than minimum agricultural wages. Wage payment delays continue, and there is evidence that these are caused by inadequate allocations. But what has received less attention is the case of unmet demand which is also correlated with inadequate allocations.


It is one of the largest work guarantee programmes in the world launched in 2005 by the Ministry of Rural development. As of 2022-23, there are 15.4 crore active workers under the MGNREGS.

The primary objective of the scheme is to guarantee 100 days of employment in every financial year to adult members of any rural household willing to do public work-related unskilled manual work.

Unlike earlier employment guarantee schemes, the act aims at addressing the causes of chronic poverty through a rights-based framework.

At least one-third of beneficiaries have to be women. Wages must be paid according to the statutory minimum wages specified for agricultural labourers in the state under the Minimum Wages Act, 1948.

There is an emphasis on strengthening the process of decentralisation by giving a significant role in Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs) in planning and implementing these works. The act (MGNREGA) mandates Gram sabhas to recommend the works that are to be undertaken and at least 50% of the works must be executed by them.

A demand-driven law

MGNREGA is a demand-driven law. Every household must get work within 15 days of demanding work, failing which the workers are legally entitled to an unemployment allowance.

But this demand-driven aspect has suffered. Getting work and wages is contingent on the household details being entered on the MGNREGA software called the Management Information System (MIS).

The MIS has been used to subvert the Act in many ways, one of which is work demand suppression. Owing to budgetary constraints, officials usually give fewer days of work to many households or provide many days of work to a few households. Two crore new job cards were issued between 2019-20 and 2022-23 showing the continued demand; yet, the average number of days of employment continues to be around 45 days bearing testimony to demand suppression.

The national MIS reports show the number of households that demanded and got work. The persondays of work generated is available nationwide and for each State and panchayat. However, the aggregated persondays of work demanded at the State and national level is not available as a national MIS report; it is available for each panchayat. So, using the national MIS reports we only get an incomplete picture of unmet demand. Let us see why.

Suppose a household has demanded seven days of work and got three days. Then, as per the national MIS report, since the household demanded and got work, the household-level unmet demand is zero. But the persondays of unmet demand is four days. There is no national MIS report showing this. To arrive at persondays of unmet demand for each State, we have to resort to statistical techniques.

The weighted average persondays of unmet demand for some surveyed states was 34%. But the national MIS reports show that the household-level unmet demand for these States was 11%-13% in the last four years. The country-wide household unmet demand was in this range too. This means national MIS reports grossly underestimate the unmet demand.

Taking note of contradictions

A four State study released in October 2022, conducted by Azim Premji University, NREGA Consortium and CORD, also showed high levels of unmet demand in 2019-20. As per this, 39% of the households did not get a single day of work despite wanting 77 days on average, and those who got at least one day of work wanted 64 days of more work.

It was found that, to meet the full extent of work demand, the labour Budget should have been three times what was allocated in the surveyed blocks. In contrast, as per the national MIS reports, it appears that almost all the households that demanded work were offered work in each of the last four years.

The Rural Development Ministry claims that low demand has resulted in Budget cuts, but the reality is opposite. Budget cuts have created a vicious cycle of demand suppression, wage payment delays, an overburdened field staff and corruption. These further discourage workers from doing MGNREGA work.


For the sake of transparency, the persondays of work demanded must be made readily available for each State. Ground reports suggest that the recent introduction of an app to register workers’ attendance has only increased worker woes. This is just the latest in a series of technical fixes when the real problem is underfunding and excessive centralisation.


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