Govt Stifling Freedom?
By Poonam I Kaushish
Democracy is a conflict of interests masquerading as a contest of principles. An adage which nails our leaders angst when it comes to their reactions on ‘anti-national’ speeches depending on which side of the liberal-bigoted divide they are. And over the last month, one is witness to at least four counts of this. Leaving one wondering if anti-nationalism is the new black!
Think. Amulya Leona who raised “Pakistan Zindabad” slogan thrice at AIMIM Chief Owaisi’s anti-CAA-NRC Save Constitution rally was slapped with sedition and imprisoned for 14 days in Bengaluru. She joined poet Siraj Bisaralli who too was arrested for his poem addressed to a Government machine that “licked the boots of the British” and “believes in Goebbels” demanding hapless citizens to furnish documents. BJP workers assert it insults Modi.
Earlier a FIR was registered against AIMIM leader Waris Pathan for saying, “We have to take Azadi by force. Remember, 15 crore hain lekin 100 crore pe bhari hain” at an anti-CAA rally. Another sedition case was lodged against Sharjeel Imam for instigating people to cut Assam off India.
Questionably, is nationalism per se a justification to stifle critique? No matter, that these are symbolic of every Indian’s freedom credentials! How does merely criticizing a belief or thinking tantamount to spreading “hatred”? Is the Government, be it Centre or State crushing free expression, suppressing dissent? Is it trying to tell us that outpouring like Leona, Bisaralli, Pathan and Imam will not be tolerated?
How does criticizing the Government be considered anti-national? By doing so does it not make a mockery of the concept of a “nation” built on the values of democracy? Are we so paranoid or intolerant that any outpouring is viewed as a threat to the nation, the Constitution or the Government? Is the polity afraid of a clash of ideas in our public life? Should this become litmus of one’s patriotism?’
Have we lost the ability to accept criticism? Bordering on a narcissist phobia? Is it mere coincidence or a sign of an increasingly knee-jerk, reactionary country? Should an assertion become litmus of one’s patriotism?’
Obversely, can an Indian national denounce his country? Is putting him behind bars the answer? Is this the Governments’ way of teaching us a lesson in rashtra prem and desh bhakti? Do we want to produce robots who only act at the command of what their leaders and chela thinkers, benefactors and wealth creators’ desire?
Certainly, Leone and her ilk speeches were in bad taste, but in no way do they warrant their arrest under sedition as it is only slapped in cases of a severe, intense, desperate crime where one takes up arms to threaten the legitimacy of a regime. Indeed, a person has the right to free speech so long as they do not threaten or resort to violence.
But the larger question of free speech vs rashtravad needs to be nailed. True, no quarter should be given to those who fan hatred among people and communities. Be it a Hindu fundamentalist or a Muslim militant as both are destroyers of the State. But our netagan too should not jump in feet first giving sermons on nationalism and even supporting restrictions on freedom of speech and expression! Thus, our moral angst cannot be selective but should be just and equal.
Failing to realize they are playing with fire, exposing their deplorable and dangerous lack of tolerance and determined to turn most things into a bone of contention between sedition and patriotism whereby democracy does not stand a chance. Bringing things to such a pass that in an era of political correctness sedition becomes an epidemic term, a blanket condemnation of dissent or anti-nationalism. Wherein, life is lived in the slim strip called the official.
Undeniably, freedom of speech and expression enshrined in our Constitution is sacrosanct and inviolable that needs to be cherished and protected, certainly not misused in the name of freedom.
Simultaneously, they are not unfettered rights. Every right has limitations. There is a line that divides right to debate and support terrorism or the idea of terrorism, In the name of intellectual freedom people cannot be allowed to espouse slogans of Pakistan Zindabad or hold meetings to honour men who worked against the State.
Plainly, none appreciates sloganeering like, Bharat tare tukre hone tak, jang jari rahe gi, Bharat ki barbadi tak! India murdabad, India go back, Kashmir magein azadi, kitne Afzal Guru maroge, har ghar me paida hoga ek Afzal, Afzal bole azadi, chhinke lenge azadi, Kasab aur Afzal ke hatiyaare zindabad, tumhare maut ka badla hum lengeh!
Remember Bollywood Shah Rukh Khan was cornered for his views on what it is to be a Muslim in India and got caught in the crosshairs of an unseemly Indo-Pak spat post Pakistan’s Interior Minister Rehman Malik that India provide security to him. Leading him to state he was a proud Indian. Before him famed Shankar’s cartoons of Ambedkar in NCERT school books were posthumously removed. Notwithstanding if India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, called sedition laws “objectionable and obnoxious”.
Also, in a billion plus country there would be a billion views and one cannot curtail people’s fundamental rights. One is free not accepting the view of others as it is a matter of perception. A statement objectionable to a person might be normal to another.
Besides, courts safeguard this right whereby citizens enjoy the fundamental right to have different opinions, criticize Government actions and express disagreement with judicial pronouncements. The aim should be to raise the bar on public discourse, not lower it any more than has been done.
Clearly, the speed with which our tolerance is falling to fragile levels is scary. Forgetting, that if an individual’s freedom is denied, then the freedom of a community will be trampled upon too. Our leaders must desist from using narrow-mindedness and prejudices as pedestals to stand on to be seen.
After all, democracy is not just a system of Government, it is a way in which evolved and civilised societies organise themselves; within which people live and interact with one another; based on the values of liberty, equality and fraternity not only in governance but to living in a democratic country.
What next? Pander to rabble rousers or muzzle their voices. Notably, no licence should be given to anyone to spread hatred or the perilous implications of their insidious out-pourings. They need to realise a nation is primarily a fusion of minds and hearts and secondarily a geographical entity.
Also, our netas need to see how leaders world-wide are more tolerant about what’s written or depicted about them. Two classic examples of political freedom are US President Trump and former Italian millionaire-playboy-PM Berlusconi who were mercilessly satirized globally. In UK and France people take a lot of liberties vis-à-vis their rulers.
Surely, we need to adopt a zero-tolerance stance on offensive and divisive language. The message has to go out clearly that no one can spew hatred, and if they do, they lose their democratic right to be heard. Such rhetoric has no place in a civilised polity.
In the ultimate, either which way, criticism is a sign of a thriving and robust democracy. At the same time we need to desist from acerbic and speeches which spew hatred and narrow-mindedness. Our leaders too should not get touchy and need to realize the way forward is those who cannot take critique in their stride, destroy democracy. What gives? —— INFA