Edit & Opinion

Arrest Me Too: Cry On The Wall

It is the season of the political jihadis whereby the licence to allegedly question the Government becomes a ticket to jail, stripping India of all open-mindedness, equilibrium and tolerance to expose our netas final act of patriotism!

Brutally, India is in the grip of intolerance by our rulers with the Delhi police arresting 25 daily wage earners and registering FIRs for pasting 1800 posters in 17 districts criticizing Prime Minister Modi’s vaccine maître: ‘Modiji hamare bachchon ki vaccine videsh kyun bhej di?’ On frivolous ground “likely to spread infection, dangerous to life and defacement of public property, akin to catching flies by letting SWAT teams loose. Forgetting that policing of peoples’ right to freedom speaks poorly of our leaders. Will those held now be dubbed anti-national? A petition against their arrest is pending in the Supreme Court.

 

In UP an ex-IAS officer has been booked for spreading “misinformation” by tweeting a seven-year old photo of dead bodies floating in the Ganga and claiming they were of present day Ballia and Varanasi. Yet, the Government has not discounted that nearly 100 bodies have been washed ashore in three Bihar and UP districts.

 

Alongside, BJP’s Sitapur MLA hit out at Chief Minister Yogi’s Government by saying that if he and his ilk “speak too much and make statements” it might lead to sedition charges against him. Adding, “Do you think MLA’s can speak their mind? Last year I was hauled up for questioning how would clapping remove corona, referring to Modi’s call to clap during Janata curfew March 2020. In Bihar, Indian Muslim rights activist Sharjeel Imam was arrested & charged with sedition for inflammatory speech against CAA and NRC.

 

Earlier, YSR Congress MP was indicted of sedition for demanding that bail granted to Chief Minister Jagan Reddy in a case be cancelled. The police arrested two TDP activists for questioning policies of the State Government. The Karnataka police arrested a primary school headmistress after registering a case against the school management for alleged involvement in staging a play portraying Modi in poor light over the CAA-NRC.

 

Stand-up comedian Munawar Faruqui, now on bail was arrested for posting a video for allegedly making “filthy and indecent jokes” about Hindu Gods and Goddesses and Home Minister Amit Shah along-with journalist Sidhique Kappan on his way to UP’s Hathras to cover the gangrape of a Dalit teen and 22 year old student Disha Ravi in ‘toolkit’ case.

 

Aghast Opposition leaders accuse the Government of throttling free speech, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi tweeted ‘arrest me too’ while others dubbed the Indian Penal Code as Modi’s Penal Code as putting up critical posters against him is now a crime.

Arguably, freely expressed critiques always hurt. One can quibble about the posters criticizing the Prime Minister being in bad taste but what is downright ominous are the arrests, given that multitudes of citizens are angry at the Government’s quixotic flip-flop on vaccinations: from 4 weeks in January between two doses to a 4-6 weeks gap in March to 12-16 weeks now. And airing that anger is not a crime. Importantly, this not only reflects poorly on our administrative machinery, goes against freedom of speech and is repugnant.

 

Specially, against the backdrop of the Supreme Court time and again underscoring freedom of speech and expression is integral of those who speak, of those who wish to hear and to be heard. It has no geographical limitation and carries with it the right of a citizen to gather information and to exchange thought with others anywhere worldwide.

 

Raising a moot point: Is the polity afraid of the clash of ideas in our public life? Should cheering our rulers’ vaccine maitri become litmus of one’s patriotism?’ How does criticizing a policy tantamount to spreading “infection”? Is it the job of the State to decide what people should read or see? Or is this the Sangh’s way of teaching us a lesson in rashtra prem and desh bhakti?

Perhaps, netas are unaware that the concept of freedom will offend. Think. Speech or posters when censored are not free at all. If a painting is obscene or hurts the sentiments of others, then let the public decide, not Parties or police. People can always ignore criticism of Government but tearing posters and arresting people is just not acceptable.

Sadly, this is not a new attitude, history is full of incidents. Remember McCarthyism in US, when everyone who said anything was a communist spy. Today, increasingly leaders are talking more in banalities where life is lived in the slim strip called the official and every joke, satire, humour or defiance treated as a monster. By remaining silent spectators we are encouraging sheer abuse of muscle power by our law enforcers thereby allowing them to get away.

Pertinently, 816 sedition cases were registered against 10,938 individuals between 2010-20 pan India of which 65%, were implicated after Modi came to power in 2014 but no charge-sheets were filed in 70% cases and only four of the 43 cases in which trial had been completed resulted in conviction. Of these 149 people were accused of making “critical” or “derogatory” remarks against the Prime Minister and 144 against UP Chief Minister Yogi. Over six sedition cases have been filed on the ongoing farmers’ agitation and 22 after the Hathras gangrape.

 

In 2019, 9% of the sedition cases pending from previous years resulted in closure because the accused were untraceable. The conviction rate in such cases was only 3.3%. Five states, Bihar, Tamil Nadu, UP, Jharkhand and Karnataka accounted for nearly 65% cases.

In a milieu whereby the Centre’s Covid 19 approach has become a major faultline of invisible Ministers, 750 MPs and thousands MLAs, callousness and mismanagement, posters, films, critiques only express opinion. Thus, it does not behove a Government to appear rattled by them, that too by being unable to differentiate public anger from signs of ‘ostensible’ sedition on walls. Overlooking, that citizens have a Constitutional right to have a political view on any issue of national importance.

Clearly, the speed with which our tolerance is falling to fragile levels is scary. Remember, the right to dissent is a vital ingredient of democracy hence a clampdown on discussion and debate is both wrong and unwise. Our leaders need to realize that bad taste is still a sign of good democracy and when it balances between sedition and patriotism, democracy does not stand a chance.

Alas, sedition becomes an epidemic term, emptying out the rest of the thesaurus. A blanket condemnation of dissent, differences, eccentricity, protest, anything one does not like or approve of. Life is lived in the slim strip called the official. Consequently, far from being tolerant and turning a cheek to varying opinions it seems we are determined to turn most things into a bone of contention.

In an era of political correctness and ethnic sensitivity, where fundamentalists march as patriots in uniform, a wry irreverence, or a tongue-in-cheek reference, becomes an act of “hatred”. Time  our leaders voice the language of empathy and not the abuse of raw power. The raised cacophony of people in pain seeking help or expressing anger needs empathetic leaders to read the cry on the wall.

 

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Poonam I Kaushish

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