Right to Criticise: Urdu writers and the Curious Case of the ‘Loyalty form’

By Aishwarya Ayushmaan

Recently, reports emerged in the media regarding the requirement of a ‘loyalty form’ from Urdu authors and editors whose works were acquired for bulk purchase by the National Council for Promotion of Urdu Language (NCPUL). The NCPUL, which operates under the Ministry of Human Resource Development and is chaired by Central HRD Minister Smriti Irani, purchases books in bulk orders from select Urdu authors as part of its monetary assistance scheme. However, for the past few months, the authors have claimed that they have been asked to sign a form declaring that the content of their book is not against the government or its policies. The nature of the declaration raises concerns regarding its implications on the freedom of speech and expression. Moreover, this controversial requirement is unique to Urdu authors and editors, which makes it questionable in the context of right to equality and equal treatment under law.

Right to Criticise

The right to criticise the government or its policies is an integral aspect of the right to free speech and expression. In Express Newspapers Pvt. Ltd. v. Union of India[1],   the court reiterated that, “Central to the concept of a free press is freedom of political opinion and at the core of that freedom lies the right to criticise the Government, because it is only through free debate and free exchange of ideas that Government remains representation to the will of the people and orderly change is effected.” Such a conception of the right to criticise has been further sustained in Sakal newspapers[2].

The contentious declaratory form states that:

”I, son/daughter of __________ do hereby declare that my book/journal/booklet _______________ , which has been accepted by the National Council for Promotion of Urdu Language’s scheme for financial assistance for bulk purchase, does not contain anything which goes against the policies of the Indian government, or anything that is against national interest, or anything which promotes disharmony between the various communities.”

Clearly, the declaration is worded in very general terms and is open to a liberal interpretation. The authors have to certify that the content of their books does not contain anything which goes against the policies of the Indian government, against national interest or promotes disharmony between different communities. Moreover, this declaration is backed by a warning that legal action may be pursued against the writers if they do not abide by the declaration. In such cases, monetary assistance might have to be returned.

This precludes any form of critique of the government or its policies, and in effect quells the right to criticise, recognised as an integral part of the right to the freedom of speech and expression by the Indian judiciary.

Executive Overreach

Safeguards against the misuse of freedom of speech and expression are embedded within the Constitution, in the form of Article 19(2). These grounds are comprehensive and include protecting the sovereignty and integrity of India, security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency or morality or in relation to contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence. The current declaration extends beyond these restrictions, and appears to be a case of executive overreach.

Moreover, the motivations for such a requirement seems unclear. As reported, the NCPUL has clarified that the move was brought about because of a book which was found to contain incorrect information about Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam. However, in such case a simple declaration regarding the veracity of content might be enough, and is usually part of the process in the publishing business.

The NCPUL has defended this requirement on the grounds as that the government provides financial assistance to these authors, therefore the content of their books cannot be against the government.  However, the fundamental right to freedom and speech and expression cannot be curtailed in lieu of government aid, in the absence of a specific provision to that effect in the Constitution of India. Additionally, there is no evidence of a similar requirement from authors of other languages, to which the government provides aid.

The ambiguity surrounding the nature and exact purpose of this declaration, indicates that it may not be sustainable if challenged on constitutional grounds. But, in its present form, the declaration clearly inhibits an integral aspect of the right to free speech, the right to criticise.

[1] Express Newspapers Pvt. Ltd. v. Union of India , AIR 1986 SC 872

[2] Sakal Papers (P) Ltd. and Ors. vs. The Union of India (UOI).