During the ten years when Manmohan Singh was Prime Minister of India, Palaniappan Chidambaram and Kapil Sibal ensured the passage of a raft of legislation and regulations designed to tighten the control of the state over the citizen. An example was the Information Technology Act 2005, or Chidambaram’s edict of a six-month gap between visas that was tailor made to kill the tourism industry. It was during the “liberal” UPA days that laws relating to sexual harassment got enacted that had zero effect on atrocities against women, but exponentially increased the space available to the police and to others in authority to hound and harass citizens born male. How such regressive behaviour during the UPA years escaped the attention of the many who have in past weeks returned the tokens of their official awards, is a mystery. Intolerance at the hands of the state has long been a fact of life for those not millionaires or officials. Certainly the NDA has yet to succeed in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s mission of ensuring “Minimum Government” (and thereby maximum governance) in India, which is presumably why even Chidambaram and Sibal can these days profess their faith in freedoms they opposed during their years in ministerial office. It was Chidambaram who was instrumental in getting Anna Hazare arrested, while Sibal enforced a sarkari chokehold over educational institutions while at HRD, to name just two of the unorthodox ways in which both supported freedoms while in power. It was a disappointment to many that the Telecom Ministry under the NDA supported Section 66A in the Supreme Court, only to have it struck down by the court. Or that the government favours such colonial-era restraints on freedom of speech as “criminal defamation”, a concept not found in the legal systems of other major democracies. Thanks to this outdated law, an individual with sufficient resources can file case after case against a publication and its staff, who will need to go through the time-consuming routine of court appearances and the seeking of bail to avoid incarceration for comments which would be deemed anodyne in the United States. Ever since the Supreme Court ruled in favour of a Rs 100 crore damages verdict against a television channel for broadcasting the wrong photograph of a judge for a few minutes (following this up with repeated corrections), much of the media in India has taken the line of least resistance and refused to carry reports about corruption and misfeasance out of fear that the documentary evidence available to the publication may not be enough to survive a charge of criminal defamation, not to mention damages of a punitive nature. Is it better for 99 crooks to escape exposure in order to ensure that a single innocent person be not wrongly portrayed for a temporary period, till the truth of his or her innocence emerges?
As for “hate crimes”, framing fresh laws about this would have as little impact on actual actions as the UPA-tightened laws on rape have. The Home Ministry set a very low bar for success in “hate speech” prosecutions in their affidavit deeming prosecution to be the course to follow in the case of a speech made a decade ago by Subramanian Swamy, and which vanished into oblivion until resurrected by the law officers of the present government. If the words mentioned as spoken by Swamy constitute a prosecutable offence, several thousand politicians in India would face a similar fate, as each of them have made comments far more pungent than what the former Commerce Minister is held to have spoken in the Home Ministry affidavit. There is no doubt that several of the self-declared “swamis” and “sadhvis” elected during the 2014 Modi wave are in need of medical attention. Hopefully, medication will reduce their symptoms. However, better than seeking the incarceration of such individuals would be to pillory them through the media, in view of the fact that barring a small number of crazed fanatics, people in India have contempt for those who throw abuse at citizens of a different faith or caste. The colonial reflex of regarding law (and the harsher this be, the better) as the option of choice for any contingency needs to be removed through the revocation of laws which clearly infringe freedoms central to democracy, such as freedom of dress, diet and lifestyle.
Together with removing such anachronistic laws as criminal defamation and several of the curbs on freedom of speech introduced by Jawaharlal Nehru to dilute Article 19 (1) (a) of the Constitution of India, what is needed is to deepen and broaden the scope of Right to Information (RTI), including by ensuring that a majority of those appointed have their origins outside the civil service. Transparency is essential for good governance, while freedom is at the core of innovation. Prime Minister Modi’s plan to make India a hub of services and manufacturing will succeed only when freedoms are expanded way beyond the colonial confines of the Nehruvian state, and when transparency rather than opacity becomes the norm in the functioning of government. The sooner this is done, the quicker will be the collapse of the present movement against an “intolerance”, which has been present in each year of independence of a country whose people will no longer accept the British-era premise still retained by the civil service, that only the latter know what is good for the country, and the only role of the rest of society is to obey. Only by reversing the damage done by the Manmohan Singh government to individual freedoms will the Narendra Modi government show the incongruity of the campaign against it by those who perpetuated regressive laws so long as they were the masters of the state, but who have become lovers of liberty now that they are out of office.