Gagging the academia freedom of expression- a dangerous precedent

Written By: / Editorial / Thursday, 13 August 2020 18:30

On August 10, 2020, the Directorate of University and Higher Education, Government of Manipur issued a Memorandum which, citing Section 9 of the CCS (Conduct) Rules, 1964, made it mandatory for all Government College Teachers and other staff working under the Higher Education Department, Manipur to obtain approval from competent authority before publishing or making statement regarding any Government policy or Programme in the media failing which appropriate disciplinary action may be taken. And as expected, a large number of academicians and intellectuals expressed outrage and indignation over the state directive which is widely viewed as regressive and runs counter to the idea of developing critical thinking. While it could be a pragmatic and even essential step in an organization or private business house to apply such restrictions, it would be erroneous to superimpose the values considered good and justified in such organisations onto the government as the ambit of the government is so overarching and all-encompassing that disallowing criticism of the government effectively means that one has to forego the right to freedom of expression almost completely. There is hardly any area of activity in the country which is beyond the purview of government policy. In fact no citizen, whether government servant or otherwise, can be deprived from holding and expressing views on issues that affect him on a personal level as it is directly linked to a citizen’s right to life and liberty. The vague idea of reasonable restrictions on freedom of expression on certain class/category can’t be so wide as to muzzle the freedom itself. The pertinent question arising now is what kind of reasonable restrictions need to be put on the category of citizens called ‘government servants’?
It is not justifiable to deny right to freedom of expression from the government servants. Mention may be made of two judgements of the Constitution bench of Supreme Court delivered in 1962 in which the court ruled that ‘merely because a person has entered government service, it does not mean they have surrendered those fundamental rights which are available to all citizens, and thus continues to enjoy the right to freedom of expression subject only to the categories of reasonable restrictions specified in the Constitution’.
 On a more pragmatic level, it may be detrimental to consider all criticism as harmful for the functioning and image of the government for the simple fact that criticism of many of the existing provisions of law have been instrumental in taking the society and country forward towards improved governance and enhanced welfare of the people. One can consider the debate around the Official Secrets Act leading to RTI Act, right to privacy and the ongoing case about Art 377 to appreciate that the criticism of the existing laws provides impetus for change for the better. In fact, a balanced, fact based and well-intended criticism is the life blood of every democracy and the governmental system also benefits from it. Forcing a muzzle on those who have a close understanding of the functioning of government and implementation of the policies including its lacunae, inherent biases and loopholes would deprive the system of an important input for improving the system of governance. Before stirring this sensitive and contentious issue out of control, perhaps the state government should  also consider the  doctrine of unconstitutional conditions which prohibits the State from denying citizens a benefit by making access to that benefit conditional upon citizens’ abstaining from exercising any or all of their fundamental rights. 
In such times when the government at the centre as well as the state are trying to bring in more transparency and public-centric approach towards governance, imposing of such restricting directives would mean contradicting itself and going back on its own words of increased public participation to governance and would ultimately project itself as a government which is more on the defensive and thereby connotes a compromising image.

About the Author

Jeet Akoijam

Jeet Akoijam

Jeet Akoijam, Resident Editor of Imphal Times hails from Singjamei Liwa Road. Has been with Imphal Times since its start. An International level Rugby player and  a regular Trekker and Nature Lover, loves spending time in lap of Mother Nature. Jeet is the father of two lovely kids. Jeet can be contacted at [email protected]

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