The Seditious Half-Life of Facts
After recent developments in BJP-ruled Tripura, many concerned citizens and organisations have said that the courts must step in to curb draconian laws that impede freedom of speech and civil liberties. There are allegations, backed by media reports, that communal violence erupted in Tripura after recent attacks on members of the minority community in Bangladesh. The Tripura High Court took suo moto cognisance of the matter based on media reports and asked the state government to appear before it. However, last week, the Tripura Police charged 102 people under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act or UAPA, based on their social media posts. Indian and foreign journalists, including Shyam Meera Singh, Aarif Shah and CJ Werleman, are named in a single FIR that invokes section 13 of the draconian law.
Days ago, the Tripura Police had used the same law against Supreme Court lawyers who are also members of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) and other civil liberty organisations. Advocates Amit Srivastav, the coordinator of Lawyers for Democracy; PUCL member Mukesh Kumar; Estesham Hashmi, a Supreme Court lawyer; and NCHRO national secretary Ansar Indori find themselves charged under UAPA. Now, their colleagues in the legal profession and fellow travellers in the civil liberties movement have to rush to their defence.
They had visited the state following the reports of sectarian violence and released a fact-finding report. Their report said the victims of the violence in Tripura need legal help. It had some kind words for the local police, which it said did its best to avoid conflict escalation in many places.
The charge from sections of the Opposition camp is that instead of measures to prevent violence and assist the victims, the state government is shooting the messenger. The Editors Guild of India has called the charge of journalists under the UAPA an “extremely disturbing trend”. With public pressure building, it would be difficult for the government to stop people from talking about the rampant misuse of the UAPA and sedition charges.
In September, Michelle Bachelet, who heads the office of the United Nations High Commissioner of Human Rights, called the use of UAPA in India worrying. She said restrictions to the right to freedom of expression and ever-growing pressure on journalists are worrying.
The use of repressive laws has taken a quantum jump in recent years, with governments often flouting Supreme Court orders on their application.
Recently, a two-judge bench reiterated the ruling in Kedar Nath Singh vs State of Bihar, a landmark judgement delivered way back in 1962 by a Constitution bench. The court held that criticising a government “in strong terms” or “using very vigorous words in writing” cannot be considered sedition. The ruling was in response to activist SP Udaykumar who participated in the Kudankulam protest and was charged with sedition, along with many others.
At least 400 people got charged with sedition in the last decade, many for merely criticising politicians or the government. Most of these cases were registered after Prime Minister Narendra Modi won the 2014 and 2019 elections for the BJP. The majority of these cases are in BJP-ruled states.
After the Tripura episode, there are high expectations that the Supreme Court will stop states from filing serious charges at the drop of a hat. One reason is how the court proactively intervened after the Lakhimpur Kheri incident. The court also delivered a scathing critique in its ruling on the Pegasus snooping affair.
The court obviously felt the circumstances compelled it to intervene, although the government raised the spectre of national security in the Pegasus case. (Other countries have set up high-level enquiries into the matter.) The possibility of foreign organisations surveilling Indian citizens apart, Pegasus infringes the right to privacy and freedom of speech. Snooping on such a wide scale can potentially deprive citizens of their rights, and can implicate the government for attempting to do so.
The indiscriminate use of draconian laws also denies citizens their rights, perhaps more blatantly, and also has a chilling effects on citizens.
It is also opportune to understand what prompted this rampant use of draconian laws. One source of these actions, and the most obvious one, is ideological. The dispensation ruling at the Centre and in many states yearns for a Hindu Rashtra to establish its hegemonic vision. It wants to reduce whomever it designates as the ‘other’ to secondary status, and sees secular democratic India as an affront to that vision. The idea of a pluralistic India still has purchase with a significant section of Indians, which hinders India’s transformation to a religious state and also blocks the BJP from further consolidation.
Perhaps the BJP believes that a carrot and stick policy—excessive use of force and weak institutions—would leave individuals who oppose it unprotected. That way, it can further its polarising agenda and have people ultimately submit to its rule.
However, the immediate reason for the BJP’s strong-arm tactics is the all-around failure of the current governance model. It has come under the scanner for the great hiatus between the macho image it projects to citizens and lack of a long-term vision, other than its pro-rich bias, abandoning social welfare, dilution of democracy and marginalisation of religious minorities.
Gone are days when there were advocates of the Modi model in the Western world.
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