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In Defence of Liberty

Context: A middle-school teacher in France, Samuel Paty, is beheaded for showing cartoons of the Prophet as part of a class on free expression. Subsequently, three more people are killed.


GS Paper 2: Historical underpinnings & evolution; Features, amendments, significant provisions, basic structure; Comparison of Indian constitutional scheme with other countries’

Mains questions:

1: Politically mobilised, fanatical religion has often not been safe for individual freedom, whether it is a form of Islam, Christian or Buddhist fundamentalism or Hindu nationalism. Discuss the statement in context of recent terrorist attack in France. 15 marks.

2: Better laws and a change in judicial approach are necessary for liberty to not remain merely a lofty, theoretical ideal. Elaborate. 15 marks

3: What is meant by freedom of expression? What in your view would be a reasonable restriction on this freedom? Give examples. 15 marks

Dimensions of the article:

  • What is liberty?
  • Historical importance of liberty in Indian context.
  • What are the ideals of Liberty?
  • Negative and positive liberty.
  • What are the challenges related to Liberty?
  • Way forward

What is liberty?

freedom is the absence of constraint and it allows the full development of the individual’s creativity, sensibilities and capabilities: be it in sports, science, art, music or exploration. Moreover, a free society is one that enables one to pursue one’s interests with a minimum of constraints.

Historical importance of liberty in Indian context:

A concept analogous to Freedom in Indian political thought is ‘Swaraj’. The term Swaraj incorporates within it two words — Swa (Self) and Raj (Rule). It can be understood to mean both the rule of the self and rule over self. Swaraj, in the context of the freedom struggle in India referred to freedom as a constitutional and political demand, and as a value at the social-collective level.

Mahatma Gandhi in his work Hind Swaraj where he states, “It is Swaraj when we learn to rule ourselves”. Swaraj is not just freedom but liberation in redeeming one’s self-respect, self-responsibility, and capacities for self-realisation from institutions of dehumanisation.

Ideals of liberty:

The Preamble of Indian constitution well defined the ideals of liberty that are liberty of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship.

  • Liberty of thoughts: It is fundamental to human being, so that they can develop free ideas and imagination about their life moreover they are free to take decisions as per their will without harming to others. Moreover it helps to develop new ideas and becomes the basis of scientific and cultural evolution.
  • Liberty of expression: John Stuart Mill gave four reasons to uphold liberty of expression:
    • No idea is completely false. What appears to us as false has an element of truth. If we ban ‘false’ ideas, we would lose that element of truth that they contain.
    • Truth does not emerge by itself. It is only through a conflict of opposing views that truth emerges. Ideas that seem wrong today may have been very valuable in the emergence of what we consider right kind of ideas.
    • Truth always runs the risk of being reduced to an unthinking cliché. It is only when we expose it to opposing views that we can be sure that this idea is trustworthy.
    • A society that completely suppresses all ideas that are not acceptable today, runs the danger of losing the benefits of what might turn out to be very valuable knowledge.
  • Liberty of belief, faith and worship: These fundamental values give sense of security to humans so that they can do religious practices as per their will.

Negative and positive liberty:

Negative liberty: it  seeks to define and defend an area in which the individual would be inviolable, in which he or she could ‘do, be or become’ whatever he or she wished to ‘do, be or become’. This is an area in which no external authority can interfere. It is a minimum area that is sacred and in which whatever the individual does, is not to be interfered with. It is an inviolable area of non-interference in which the individual can express himself or herself.

Positive liberty: Positive liberty recognises that one can be free only in society (not outside it) and hence tries to make that society such that it enables the development of the individual whereas negative liberty is only concerned with the inviolable area of non-interference and not with the conditions in society, outside this area, as such.

Challenges related to liberty: Liberty has two dimensions positive and negative liberty. Negative liberty defines the area which is inviolable and individual can enjoy absolute freedom and positive liberty defines the area of society in which individual should respects the rights of others.

  • State vs individual: Sometime in the name of national security, the state tries to curtail the individual liberty e.g. sometime the authority misuse the section 124A of IPC, which is related to sedition charges.
  • Aadhar Act:  The people share their personal information to authority. This information is directly related to individual dignity. Moreover authority can be misuse this information which is against the liberty.
  • State vs religion: Sometime, In the name of secularism, the state curtail the individual freedom e.g. the France govt banned the burkha. Which goes the rights of minority community.

Way forward

Liberty embodies our capacity to make the right choices, to assess in a reasoned manner available options, and shoulder the responsibility of our actions, have to be built through education and cultivation of judgement just as much as it needs to be nurtured by limiting the authority of the state and the society.


1: RIGHT TO FREEDOM (Indian constitution)

Art. 19 – Freedom of speech and expression, assembly, association, movement, residence, and profession.

Art. 20 – Protection in respect of conviction for offenses.

Art. 21 – Protection of life and personal liberty. Art. 21A – Right to elementary education.

Art. 22 – Protection against arrest and detention in certain cases.

July 2024