New Delhi: Freedom of expression is an integral part of democracy. When certain freedoms exhibit a capacity to impair democracy, reasonable restrictions are applied. These restrictions may be applied to preserve national integrity, social peace, the sanctity of religions, and so forth.

Although the state applies the reasonable restrictions as the executive law enforcer, they would still have to stand judicial scrutiny. The judiciary ultimately decides the space and limits of freedom as provided by the Constitution, and the judiciary is far less paranoid in matters of freedom than the state.

This writer tends to approach freedom-of-expression matters on a case-to-case basis. The general principle is to afford the maximum scope to freedom of expression, and to seek to limit it only when the freedom tangibly constitutes a challenge to democracy itself.

This writer was never in doubt about the ban on The Satanic Verses. The government of the day banned the Verses for a different set of reasons than the reasons that have justified the ban for this writer. The government banned Verses because it offended Muslims. That is not a reason to discount if it is not tied to votebank politics. Unfortunately, all such decisions are.

You can buy the Verses online today. There is no restriction. On hindsight, therefore, the ban may appear unnecessary and uncalled for when it was imposed. Not so for this writer.

The ban prevented the build-up of a fanatical campaign of grievance which could have caused serious law-and-order problems throughout the country. The administration’s role and resolve is to maintain peace. It has to take all necessary measures to maintain peace. If a District Magistrate had the power to ban a book in the interest of peace, would you condemn the use of that power? This writer would not.

Those wedded to a liberal ideology would decry this position. They would argue against any limits being placed on freedom of expression. The Indian Constitution, however, recognizes “reasonable restrictions”. All abridgments of freedoms in any case are justiciable.

The liberal argument likely would be that “reasonable restrictions” could become unreasonable in the course of time and that the space would increase for executive intervention against freedom of expression. Those dangers certainly exist. But the flip side of the argument is that creative spaces still remain very vast and open and to reduce creativity to abuse of religion, specific communities, and so forth, is to have a warped sense of creativity.

Finally, though, everything is open to judicial mediation. The judiciary in this country has usually been a fine balancer of freedoms.

But it still remains true that freedom of expression is the rule in a democracy, and that curbs to it are infrequent exceptions. A film producer has complete freedom to choose his actors and actresses. It cannot be held against a producer that actors from country A or B have been included in their film even though A and B may be enemy countries.

The producer has the freedom to cast who he wishes. It flows from the freedom granted by a democracy. He cannot be prevented by threats and intimidation against exhibiting his film. As long as foreign actors have valid work permits, they cannot be kept from casting.

At the same time, there is public opinion. Public opinion is the final judge. It will judge whether or not to watch a film with actors from an enemy country. Public opinion is the great force of democracy. Never, ever, discount it. Trust it to see things in true perspective. If it can be trusted to elect a government, trust its instincts on nationalism and patriotism.

Public opinion does not need the brokering of political parties in these matters. And in no case ought vigilantism to be allowed. If someone does not like a movie with actors from a certain country, they can move the court to prohibit its exhibition. The government has no role in deciding these matters.

As always, the operating sequence should be this. Democracy permits the maximum freedoms. This defines democracy. When there is a clear and present danger to democracy from the expression of certain freedoms, their reasonable curtailment is the duty of the state, which is further subject to a final judicial decision.

In the normal course, however, democracy must not stand in the way of freedom of expression. Without freedom, democracy is meaningless.