As the recent permanent ban imposed on President Trump’s social media demonstrates, Free Speech is under threat even in the home of the First Amendment. France’s craven response to the recent decapitation of a middle-school teacher who was murdered for using the Charlie Hebdo cartoons as a teaching aid underscores that Europe is moving away from enlightenment values. It is telling that in both examples of assault on free speech, the victims found more support in India than in their own countries. This suggests an opportunity for India. We can be the beacon for free speech in the rest of the world.
On the other hand, the recent example of Munawar Faruqui illustrates the dangers of untrammeled free speech for Indians. While we need to champion free speech across the world, there is obviously a need to balance this advocacy with India’s own policy priorities, including, but not limited to, preventing insult to our gods, maintaining peace between communities, stamping out criticism of our leaders and clamping down hard on contempt of court.
Fortunately, there is a tried and tested solution to this conundrum. This has been effectively employed in the economic sphere to balance the need to earn foreign exchange and the imperative of keeping Indians poor and dependent on government handouts. We could deploy the same solution here, in the form of SEZs, or Special Expression Zones. These SEZs can be used to host infrastructure for free speech exiles from other countries – for example, the social network Parler, currently subject to a brutal clampdown in the United States, can find a home here. The only condition should be that Indian passport holders should not be allowed to use these services, obviously as the policy priority is to export free speech. The regulation setting up these zones should provide for international arbitration to settle any disputes that arise, keeping them out of reach of capricious Indian courts to the extent possible.
I think there is great potential in this idea. Global export of Free Speech can be India’s Soft Power. We can be the Vishvaguru for the world. People around the world will look up to us and see us as a shining light and an example for the rest of the world to follow. This is apart from the economic opportunity that this obviously represents. I hope Prime Minister Modi takes this idea seriously, especially given that it already has a catchy acronym and has the potential to be a significant component of our post-COVID strategy in 2021.