By Poonam I Kaushish
Your freedom ends where my nose begins and one man’s food is another man’s poison. Two adages, a succinct testimony to the ongoing maelstrom thanks to our netagan’s handling of two incidents, one in West Bengal and the other in ulta-pulta UP. Which underscore the ugly side of power out of control!
In the first, life came to a grinding halt across India when junior doctors went on strike in support of two colleagues’ in Kolkata who were attacked and seriously injured by relatives of a patient who died at a hospital. Compounding matters, Chief Minister Mamata’s high-handedness by threatening doctors to resume work resulted in over 400 senior doctors of various State-run hospitals resigning. Even as no hospital would like its doctors to be hit or strike, Mamata too should exercise restraint and apologize.
In the second, a journalist is arrested by the UP police for posting a video ‘maligning’ Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath by a woman claiming she had sent a marriage proposal on Twitter and Facebook to him. He was released after three days by the Supreme Court asserting “the right to liberty is non-negotiable” and “free speech cannot be gagged for fear of the mob.”
You could have fooled me. For yet another presswallah was thrashed, stripped, urinated in his mouth and arrested by policemen for covering a train derailment. In Bangaluru, Chief Minister Kumaraswamy jailed another for “belittling us. Do we look like cartoon characters to you? Who gave you the authority?”
Dittoes, mercurial Mamata who imprisoned bête noire BJP’s youth leader for a meme she posted on Facebook which superimposed her face on actress Priyanka Chopra’s Met Gala 2019 look. She was released on bail but asked to tender an unconditional written apology.
In Tripura too, the police arrested two newsmen for posting “fake news” about Chief Minister Biplab Deb’s personal life on Facebook. In Orissa a journalist was jailed for a “derogatory and very, very objectionable” tweet about erotic sculptures in the 13th century Konark Sun Temple, another 19-year old Uttarakhand village lad was detained for sharing an ‘offensive and morphed’ photo of Prime Minister Modi.
Sadly, violence and intolerance is the rhetoric of our times. Pick any newspaper or surf any TV channel any day. Splashes of social schism gore into news headlines. Curse all you want, it’s for a cause, remember. Undoubtedly, India thrives on protests. Which has perfected the old saying “jiski laathi uski bhains”!
Turn North, South, East or West the story is the same. In fact, no day passes without a strike somewhere or an arrest for intolerable behaviour. Be it a mohalla, district or State. Shockingly, over 50 people were arrested last year for social media posts. Whereby any film, book or story which pokes fun or is out of sync with our leaders thinking, cause and outlook is considered an act of sedition and the writer or film-maker arrested.
Worse, don’t like a tweet? Arrest the person. Hate a film? Collect a crowd and burn the theatres down? Don’t like a novelist’s book? Get the Government to ban it or issue a fatwa against the author.
Raising, a moot point: Are strikes and cartoons, tweets, memes on social media actually expressions of freedom or are they means of suppressing fundamental rights in a democracy? Is the polity afraid of the clash of ideas in our public life?
Arguably, not a few would simply shrug it off with “sab chalta hai attitude, this is Mera Bharat Mahan at its rudest and crassest best.” Many would assert ki pharak painda hai. The cause is immaterial. It is all about registering ones protest, the louder the better. Success is measured in terms of causing maximum dislocation and discomfiture to people.
Instances are plenty. Remember an innocuous cartoonist Assem Trivedi was arrested for sedition by Mamata in Kolkata. Before him another of his tribe famed Shankar cartoons of Ambedkar in NCERT school books were posthumously removed. Tamil Nadu banned noted actor-director Kamal Hasan’s 100 crore magna opus Viswaroopam which dealt with the issue of terrorism on the fallacious that it would hurt the sentiments of ‘unknown’ Muslim groups and create a law and order problem. Notwithstanding if India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, called sedition laws “objectionable and obnoxious”.
What our leaders seems to forget is that there is something called Article 19 of the Constitution which states: “All citizens shall have the right (a) to freedom of speech and expression…”. It is not an absolute right. Pertinently, democracy is neither mobocracy nor a license to create bedlam. It is a fine balance between rights and duties, liberties and responsibilities. One’s freedom pre-supposes another’s responsibilities and liberty
The question thus needs to be addressed is should abominable conduct by those in power be condoned? Can leaders behave callously? Is the polity afraid of the clash of ideas in our public life? Can a Chief Minister just issue an ultimatum without hearing the aggrieved parties? Should netas be a law unto themselves and rule by law? Only the other day, a MP threatened an airline’s staff.
Besides, if politicians behave preposterously as some of them often do, why do they and others expect not to be mocked? Don’t we live in a free country? Ridiculing the ridiculous is not and cannot be a crime, at least in a democracy. One cannot live life in the slim strip called the official and every joke, wit, satire, humour or defiance treated as a monster.
In this milieu who do we turn too? Certainly, we do not need self-appointed guardians to tell us what we can see or read, what we can wear, eat or drink. We should be free to believe what we want, whom and how we should love, worship the way we want. Else, at this rate the day is not far when India could soon resemble Saudi Arabia or N Korea which have dispensed with producing movies altogether and punish those who lampoon leaders.
At the same time our doctors need to understand that democracy is neither mobocracy nor a license to create bedlam. It is a fine balance between rights and duties, liberties and responsibilities. One’s freedom pre-supposes another’s responsibilities and liberty. Paralysing the State, to get attention and policy reversals only exasperates the public and inconveniences them. Using strong-arm tactics gets one nowhere as temporary respite is no answer for building a socially cohesive society.
Where does India go from here? Our netas need to see how public figures across the globe are more tolerant about what’s written or depicted about them. A classic example of political freedom is former Italian millionaire-playboy-Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi who was mercilessly satirized in the print and online forums globally. Americans and Britishers take a lot of liberties vis-à-vis their rulers.
In sum, the message has to go out clearly that the right of the citizen is paramount. No leader or group can threaten violence, and if they do, they lose their democratic right to be heard. We are a civilized democracy, remember coercion has a thousand fathers, while liberty is an orphan. As George Orwell said, if liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear. Can liberty survive in a country where even jest tends to get criminalised? Our leaders must desist from using narrow-mindedness and prejudices as pedestals to stand on to be seen. At some point we have to stand up and bellow, “Bandh karo ye natak!”—- INFA