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Set a Benchmark - The Times of India

Editorial ()
12 February 1997

Title : Set a Benchmark
Author : Editorial
Publication : The Times of India
Date : February 12, 1997

Bal Thackeray's often ill-considered pronouncements have in the
past raised many hackles and bruised public sensibilities. Not
long ago his remarks regarding Mahatma Gandhi led to a widespread
debate on the historical role and legacy of what many in this
country continue to revere as the moral Father of the Nation, and
as such beyond even implied reproach or criticism. In the current
case, Mr Thackeray, together with the publishers of the Shiv Sena
journal, Samna, has been indicted by a bench of the Bombay high
court for contempt of court as a result of an allegation made in
that publication that an anonymous judge had reportedly sought
monetary consideration from a litigant. The court ruled that the
allegation brought discredit to the judiciary as a whole. While Mr
Thackeray has appealed to the apex court, the case raises a number
of issues of public interest, not the least of which concerns
freedom of expression. At a time when the country is witnessing the
sorry spectacle of political personalities and others in high
public offices being paraded in an unedifying procession of scams
and swindles - a cobweb of corruption that the judiciary has done
signal service by helping actively to expose and sweep away -
public comment and discussion are often necessarily edged with
controversy. Indeed, it is at such trying times when public debate
most comes into its own as the sturdy vehicle of democracy.

In the recent past, the judiciary has emerged as the most reliable
and pro-active custodian of our democracy, and as such has earned
well-deserved kudos both from the public and from the media. It is
in this role as the vanguard of democratic rights and obligations
that the judiciary might now address itself to the question of what
constitutes reasonable and responsible public debate in an
atmosphere surcharged as it is with often contradictory and
deliberately provocative charges, unsubstantiated allegations and
rumours. While the right to freedom of expression is enshrined in
the Constitution, the concomitant and implicit obligation of
responsibility of comment has at times been brushed aside in the
exuberance of a verbal or visual rhetoric that might seem
inebriated by its own heady sense of self-importance which
unwittingly or otherwise transgresses the legitimate sensitivities
of others. A case in point was the recent controversy that rose
over a painting by artist M F Husain which many felt crossed the
boundary of both propriety and aesthetic tradition. There is a very
fine dividing line between freedom of expression and the public
right to information, on the one hand, and the need to maintain
commonly accepted norms of discourse on the other. Existing laws
regarding libel and public decency may prove to be prone to
ambiguous interpretation in the current climate of unsettling
social and political change. In this context, the judiciary would
reinforce its role of being the advance guard of our democratic
polity by signposting the way over this difficult and potentially
hazardous terrain which, despite its many pitfalls, must be
negotiated in the furtherance of our common goal of liberty without
license, of freedom tempered with responsibility.

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