This is the last of a three part-article on the performance of the Narendra Modi government.
The clichéd and explosive cry that freedom of speech is in danger is a constant reverberation during the BJP’s periods in power. This time has been no different with the usual suspects in the forefront of this orchestrated alarmist campaign.
Accordingly, in a sweeping but unsubstantiated indictment of the Modi government, PEN, an international organisation of writers, at its 84 Congress in Pune last year claimed that in recent years “India’s climate for free expression has severely deteriorated, with writers, journalists and social media users finding themselves increasingly under attack…” implying that the rising tide of Hindu nationalism is responsible for this perfidy.
But is this scathing appraisal of the state of freedom of speech under the Modi government a fair assessment or is it a jaundiced view, a politically and ideologically tainted campaign of deliberate disinformation?
Freedom of speech is the basic and inalienable right in a democracy of an individual to express his/her thoughts unfettered and unafraid. However, free speech is not akin to a “license to kill”; it is not a free for all wherein anything and everything goes. Free speech needs to be tempered by moral responsibility and accountability to make it a constructive catalyst lest it deteriorate into an unbridled, toxic and destructive rant.
The Kanhaiya Kumar Episode
In February 2016, Kanhaiya Kumar, a leader of the All India Students Federation (AISF), the student wing of Communist Party of India (CPI) and the then JNU student’s union president, was arrested on charges of sedition in relation to slogans raised at a function on the JNU campus to felicitate Afzal Guru, the terrorist convicted of being complicit in the 2001 attack on the Indian Parliament.
Below are two of the slogans raised at that meeting.
* Bharat Tere Tukde Honge. InshaAllah InshaAllah.
* Bharat ki Barbadi tak Kashmir ki azadi tak jung karenge jung karenge.
The first slogan calls for the breaking of India into a thousand pieces. The second slogan is a blatant battle cry for a war of destruction against India.
These cannot be waved off as an innocuous desire for the peaceful dissolution of India. These are vicious hate rants that unequivocally threaten the violent disintegration of India, fulfilling the Supreme Court criterion of sedition as “incitement to violence.”
No country or people with any self-esteem can tolerate such treasonous outpourings. It is an unpardonable crime not against the BJP or Modi but against the 1.2 billion people who have reposed faith in the democratic republic of India. And if this government did not act it would be guilty of dereliction of duty; its action must be seen as the brief of the democratically elected standard bearers of the nation sworn to defend its integrity and sovereignty and not a violation of free speech.
Killing of Journalists
In its “freedom of expression” report on India, PEN alludes to a host of varied factors including killing of journalists (others being filing of defamation cases, internet trolling and pressure on newspapers) to back its claim. However here again we see how facts are twisted and misrepresented to mislead the public – a clear act of obfuscation. In fact, most of the killings are generic and not specific to this government or its ideology.
If you look at Table 1 (which lists the number of journalists killed as per the PEN report) you note that only one of the killings (Gauri Lankesh murder) may be, I repeat may be, related to obscure Hindu extremist elements (not mainstream Hindu nationalist organisations), and that too with a big question mark; all other cases are the fallout of land scams or bribery. Even the Gauri Lankesh murder is a long shot; nearly two years later, the case remains unsolved despite a friendly government in Bengaluru, the site of the murder; so much for the definitive claim voiced by a noted intellectual that it was undoubtedly the handiwork of the Sangh Parivar.
Another charge levelled in the PEN report is that “Online abuse has become an effective tool to shut down unfavourable opinions, especially by those who cannot counter-argue with facts or logical arguments.” The report further claims that “Currently though, speech is free in India as long as it conforms to a majoritarian perspective furthered by the establishment.”
To fully comprehend these accusations and the dynamics of this ideological wrangle being waged on the web, we need to go back in time. For nearly 50 or so years after independence, the privilege of free speech was not universal in India; it was the preserve of an elitist cabal of intellectuals, leaders and media personnel who subscribed to one thought process; nationalists opinions were effectively shut out of the national dialogue by characterising them as “hate rants” or fantastic hallucinations and by not providing them with a platform.
The advent of the internet changed all this: it redefined the rules of engagement in the blink of an eye and threw open the doors of accessibility to one and all. More importantly it stripped certain satraps of established media of their arbitrary powers to regulate free expression reducing them to monarchs with a shrinking domain. It knocked them off their ivory pedestals and brought them crashing down to ground level, eye to eye with the common man. Hence the current peeve.
The aggressive enthusiasm of the nationalists on the internet represents a backlash and must be viewed accordingly: the release of a pent-up response to the overt suppression of the nationalist voice in post independent India.
Additionally, it is important to remember that the culture of derogatory name calling was initiated by the very people who are crying foul today: “bhakhts” “Sanghis” and “saffron looney” were the constant epithets that were freely bandied around.
While it is true that harmless name calling is rampant, violent threats are fortunately rare. Homicidal intimidation must certainly be dealt with firmly. But to blow up isolated instances and proclaim them as a threat to free speech is churlish; it reflects an inability to stand up to robust debate. Also, internet trolls exist on both sides of the divide.
In July 2017, the Hindustan Times introduced a database of identity-based hate crimes in India called the “Hate Tracker”; an initiative of the newly appointed editor of international fame, Bobby Ghosh. As per the HT website this was to be “a crowd-sourced database of hate crimes in India since September 2015.”
Abruptly in October 2017, Bobby Ghosh resigned and the “Hate Tracker” was taken down supposedly at the behest of the government.
The “Hate Tracker” was a dubious document of questionable utility; an abuse of free speech, not a celebration, as the following excerpts from three different news sources of the same incident reveal.
Hindustan Times version, Oct 5, 2015 (listed in “Hate Tracker”)
A 90-year-old Dalit man died after he was brutally attacked with an axe and set on fire for trying to enter a temple at Hamirpur in Uttar Pradesh, police said on Friday… The victim, identified as Chimma, had gone to the Maidani Baba temple with his wife… He was stopped from entering the temple by a man named Sanjay Tiwari….When Chimma did not relent, Tiwari allegedly attacked him with an axe and then set him on fire.
The Times of India version, Oct 3, 2015:
A drunk allegedly killed a 90-year-old dalit in a village in UP’s Hamirpur district on Wednesday after the latter refused to part with his money. Accused Sanjay Tiwari later set the body on fire.
The Indian Express, October 3, 2015:
A 90-year-old Dalit man was allegedly killed and later set ablaze by a drunken youth outside a temple at Bilgaon village in Hamirpur on Wednesday afternoon………. Tiwari demanded money from Chimaa to drink. When the latter refused, he allegedly ran after them with an axe….
Editorials and columns in major newspapers are flush with anti-government sentiments making the charge of suppression of free speech a ridiculous proposition.
Moreover, when Kanhaiya Kumar, a member of the “Tukde Tukde” gang roams free and contests the current Lok Sabha election, when Mehbooba Mufti, the ex-CM of J&K applauds the Prime Minister of Pakistan at the height of hostilities between the two nations and when the erudite Pratap Bhanu Mehta, a relentless critic of the Modi government, eloquently tells a jam-packed room at the recent HT conclave that the, “… act of speaking has become a dangerous act in our democracy.” I know for sure that freedom of speech in is not in jeopardy.