Intellectual freedom: The cornerstone of democracy in the 21st century
Updated: Feb 17
By Neeru Nagarajan
“The educated citizen knows how much more there is to know. He knows that "knowledge is power," more so today than ever before. He knows that only an educated and informed people will be a free people.”
— John F. Kennedy, Former President of The United States
We learn a lot more from books, movies, television, or just about any media than we do from textbooks in formal school education. This is why you’ll see governments around the world jumping at every chance to censor consumption of these media. A province in China banned the book Alice in Wonderland worrying that it elevated animals to the same echelon as humans, by making them speak human language! Cuba and North Korea banned the book Animal Farm, while some school districts in the United States banned its close counterpart A Brave New World. Closer to home, India was one of the first countries to ban Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses (we had also banned A Brave New World once in the past).
Not to forget, censorship applies to movies, TV, and other forms of media as well. There is a central board of film certification that needs to approve of all films to be screened in theatres. The ministry of information and broadcasting regularly requests online publishers as well as the search engine Google to block access to specific pages online.
In essence, the Indian government still maintains control over what its citizens read, watch and learn from.
Why does this matter?
Because in a democracy, which India is, people need access to information based on which they make their political, social and economic decisions. Before we dwell into this, let’s first define democracy.
Democracy, literally, means “rule by the people.” It is a form of government in which the citizens make decisions through leaders they have elected to represent them. Since all the citizens are equal in India, they’re all entitled to some rights — as long as they abide by the law of the country. Among these, the Right to Freedom grants Indian citizens the
· freedom of speech and expression,
· freedom of assembly without arms,
· freedom of association,
· freedom of movement throughout the territory of our country,
· freedom to reside and settle in any part of the country of India and the
· freedom to practice any profession.
However, democracy is not the same as freedom. Democracy means you get to vote and decide how affairs in the public sector will be conducted. On the other hand, freedom means you may choose how you interact with others in the private sector. Freedom is crucial for a country to remain a democracy; the people cannot govern themselves if they’re not free.
Intellectual freedom: A necessity to truly govern ourselves
Intellectual freedom is the right of every individual to both seek and receive information from all points of view without restriction.
— American Library Association
In other words, intellectual freedom is the right of every individual to access information and to form personal opinions about the information. The United Nations upholds intellectual freedom in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Why do we need intellectual freedom?
Intellectual freedom is important for people to educate themselves. Without intellectual freedom, you might be easily misled or even manipulated.
It is critical for standing up to authority when need arises — being in a democracy also means voting out those in power. Without intellectual freedom, a country can’t be democratic / self-governed.
Information is the key to new ideas. Without intellectual freedom, one can’t explore ideas, have civil discussions, experiment with new possibilities — without which a society cannot progress.
What are the obstacles to intellectual freedom in India today?
First and foremost, the freedom of expression in India is not absolute; it places restrictions on content to preserve harmony and protect the unity, integrity, and security of the country. While censorship has a specific role to play in maintaining the peace in the country, it’s crucial to note that this comes at the expense of intellectual freedom. You will see several religious groups — across the spectrum — calling for the ban of media such as books, films, television shows etc. for offending their sensibilities.
Government banning media is only one part of the story. There is also constant self-censorship driven by fear of backlash. For instance, publishers will purge books, television channels will cancel shows, theatre owners will decline screening films for fear of being attacked.
So, what is the solution?
In a democracy, the government is not just responsible for not banning media. It is just as responsible for protecting those whose freedoms are under attack. To make sure our government protects us, we need to practice:
Active citizenship: As citizens of the 21st century, we need to regularly exercise our intellectual freedoms. We need to choose governments who will ensure this to us.
Questioning authority: Even though we elect our governments, it is practically impossible to expect our leaders to represent all of us. We need to regularly hold our leaders to account. We need to ask difficult questions to get facts and glean the truth. We should use laws like the Right To Information Act to keep our public offices in check.
Continued engagement: We must educate ourselves by consuming media from all sides of the argument. We must understand what our beliefs and biases are and read material that challenges us. We must regularly re-investigate our positions.
Exercise our rights: We should also proactively speak, write and publish our work. This is an important way in which a society progresses. By speaking out about your values / position, you are engaging with the larger society, which is fundamental to a functioning democracy.
"The author Prof. Perumal Murugan should not be under fear. He should be able to write and advance the canvas of his writings. His writings would be a literary contribution, even if there are others who may differ with his material and style." — Chief Justice Sanjay Kaul in the case of Madhorubagan's ban.
Hold ourselves accountable: You, me and every one of us intervene with information every single day.
· We must make sure all the information we share is factual and unambiguous.
· We must check our own biases / privileges, while understanding information.
· We must actively seek out and listen to those who are marginalized.
· We must reduce our urge to want to ban things we don’t agree with. Instead, we must read, engage and debate those ideas.
This World Democracy Day exercise your intellectual freedom. Cherish being in the largest democracy in the world. Vow to protect the intellectual freedoms not just of yourself, but of everyone around you.
At QShala, we believe that good citizenry is an important life-skill for the 21st century. This is why we’ve included citizenship as part of our programs. If you’re looking for a fun, engaging and clear way for children to learn citizenship, considering the Qshala program.
About the Author
A recent MFA Creative Writing graduate, Neeru Nagarajan writes fiction, tech stuff, the occasional poetry, and lengthy Twitter threads (@poonaikaari). She loves cats and reality TV surrounding food.