Learning the virtues of silence

Learning the virtues of silence

When the first amendment to the Constitution of India was enacted in 1951, modifying the restrictions on free speech and expression

When the first amendment to the Constitution of India was enacted in 1951, modifying the restrictions on free speech and expression, 19 (2) read as, "Nothing in sub-clause (a) of clause 1 shall affect the operation of any existing law insofar as such law imposes reasonable restrictions on the exercise of the right conferred by the sub-clause in the interests of the 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 early perceived challenge to the right to freedom of speech and expression came from the publishers of Organiser, an RSS publication spewing venom during post-partition days, and from and the publishers of Crossroads.

With the partition trauma fresh in mind, the government preferred to restrict the free speech that sustains democratic institutions, in the interest of a more immediate concern of public order and incitement to offense.

In the following 68 years, by repeatedly failing to read real challenges to the right to free speech and expression as anticipated in the amendment, the Indian State, irrespective of which party is in power, has strengthened the forces that interfere with "friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency, or morality… or incitement to an offence."

The anti-Pakistan or China hysteria, the warmongering, the Islamophobic, anti-Dalit hate speech, the dog-whistles inciting violence against intellectuals and rationalists, the whipping up of antagonism in public perception against "Urban Naxals", "anti-nationals" on the mainstream media are proof enough.

With the entry of social media into the public sphere, there has been an exponential rise in hate speeches, and fake news and deliberately misleading political information.

There have been death threats, abuse against journalists, human rights activists and women's rights activists. Even police complaints filed by senior journalists like Ravish Kumar of NDTV or Rana Ayub go unaddressed. Senior politicians have sagely counselled those who complain to "learn to live with online abuse."

On the contrary, we see that on the flimsiest of reasons the police in various States register FIRs and also arrest people for their legitimate political views on social media and mainstream media. Administrations suspend employees. Just a look at the last few months can be revealing.

In a case in Telangana, Mr Lateef Mohammad Khan, the principal of a government school and a highly respected civil liberties activist, was suspended citing service rules for posting a video questioning the KCR government about the unfulfilled promises of its 2014 manifesto.

A government employee is a public servant paid for by the taxpayer to protect public interest and not a bonded labourer of the Chief Minister or the ruling party. The same government employees agitated for a decade in support of separate Telangana State.

Gowsalya (Kausalya) is an anti-caste activist who married Shankar, a Dalit. Shankar was murdered in broad daylight. Her father and five others were sentenced to death by a trial court in Tamil Nadu. Kausalya now works for the Wellington Cantonment Board in Nilgiris as a clerk.

In a recent media interview, she commented about the neglect of Tamil Nadu by India. The Times of India quoted her as saying, "According to the Constitution, India has been considered a union, not a nation.

In that sense, how can this be called a nation? Also, in the same regard, I cannot accept Tamil Nadu as a State. And Tamil Nadu has been neglected on all fronts by India."

Considering this "hate speech", the Wellington Cantonment Board Executive Officer, Harish Varma, placed her under suspension till the inquiry against her is completed.

The 18-year-old Zakir Ali Tyagi had to spend 42 days in Muzaffarnagar jail for asking in a Facebook post, "if criminal charges would be initiated if someone drowns in the Ganga now that it had been declared a living entity."

He was charged under IPC 420 and the Section 66 of IT Act. The cheating case is for using as his profile picture the photograph of a police officer killed in line of duty as a tribute. That was seen as an intent to "deceive the public."

In May, in the heat of the election campaign in West Bengal, the police arrested a BJP leader Priyanka Sharma, a BJP youth leader in Kolkata, for sharing a meme of Mamata Banerjee.

The Supreme Court had to intervene to grant her bail. Jeetrai Hansda, a prominent Adivasi activist and a professor at the Government Arts College for Women in Jamshedpur district was arrested for a Facebook post he wrote two years ago.

A report in the scroll.in quotes his Facebook post: "As a Santhali, eating beef is part of my culture. If Santhalis are Indians, there should be no laws which force us to adopt Hindu customs. I reject that."

In the outrage whipped up by the ABVP members in response to the comment, a complaint was lodged against Hansda for hurting religious sentiments soon after in 2017.

However, Hansda was arrested only after the elections were completed in 2019, thus avoiding the wrath of the Adivasi voter before the elections. Jharkhand, a State created to protect the interests of the Adivasis, has witnessed several instances of lynching of Muslim cattle traders and Adivasis.

On 15 May, Dr Sunil Kumar Nishad, a doctor in Mumbai, was arrested for his Facebook post on Brahmanwad on the complaint of a Shiv Sena worker claiming that the "anti-Hindu" comments hurt his sentiments. Dr Nishad, a Bahujan activist, is out on bail.

Increasingly, the right to free speech and expression is mediated through the arbitrary exercise of power by the police establishment and its political masters.

This undermining of core democratic debates is achieved through intimidation.

The police, across the country, continue to arrest people under the discarded section 66A of the IT Act, and sometimes section 66 which has nothing to do with speech issues.

In the absence of any accountability about the relevance of provisions of law invoked and the "crime" that's supposed to have been committed, in many instances sedition law, cheating and forgery sections also are added.

By the time the legal process unwinds through its torturous course, the victims would have learnt a sobering lesson on the virtues of silence.

Meanwhile, those in the benign shadow of the political establishment refine their skills of online abuse and threats without any need for self-regulation or "reasonable restrictions."

(Views expressed are personal)

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