Indian politicians share a common trait–they have a short fuse. In other words, they are very touchy, and they dont like being criticised. They relish sky high glorification. But even a single word of criticism, however polite, against them is inviting their wrath, and is likely to send one to jail in handcuffs, facing trumped up charges of sedition, criminal intimidation, inciting sectarian hatred, terrorism, and what not.
The most recent example of this is the case of the journalist Sanjay Rana in Tehsil Chandausi, district Sambhal, UP. All Sanjay did in a function on 11th March was to tell a MInister in the UP Government, Gulab Devi, that she had not kept her election promise of developing his village Budhnagar.
The consequence was that Sanjay was arrested by the police in a case registered under sections 323, 504 and 506 Indian Penal Code.
Section 323 is causing simple hurt to someone e.g. by punching him. But the video of the incident ( which went viral after Sanjay’s arrest ) shows he had not committed any violence.
Section 504 is intentional insult to provoke breach of peace, and section 506 is criminal intimidation. But a perusal of the video shows that these provisions are clearly not attracted.
It is evident that the police in India, which has largely become supine and has prostrated itself before their political masters, has manufactured all this at the behest of some politician, probably the Minister herself.
In these videos Sanjay has explained the full facts, and has shown the terrible conditions in his village about which he had complained to the Minister..
Fearless independent journalism has become a hazardous activity today in India. Sanjay was handcuffed and tied with ropes for questioning the Minister, and then sent to jail.
This reminds us of West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee ordering the arrest of a farmer Shiladitya Chowdhury who at a function in 2012 told her she had not kept her promises to farmers
The Bhojpuri singer Neha Singh Rathore faced police harrassment, which caused her to be hospitalised, for singing her song ‘UP mein Ka Ba’ ( what is happening in UP ? ), in which she mentioned about the death by burning alive of a mother and daughter whose house had been bulldozed by the authorities.
All this is clearly unconstitutional, being violative of freedom of speech guaranteed by Article 19(1)(a) of the Indian Constitution, and is a grave danger to democracy in India.
A few months after the promulgation of the constitution, a constitution bench of the Supreme Court held in Romesh Thappar vs State of Madras that in a democracy people have a right to criticise the government. The court observed, “Criticism of government exciting disaffection or bad feelings towards it, is not to be regarded as a justifying ground for restricting the freedom of expression, or of the press.”
The same view in different words was taken by Justice Abdul Quddhose of the Madras High Court in his historic verdict in Thiru N. Ram vs Union of India and in which the learned judge observed, “A very important aspect of democracy is that citizens should have no fear of the government. They should not be scared of expressing views which may not be liked by those in power.” He went on to say, “Criticism of policies of the government is not sedition unless there is a call for public disorder or incitement to violence.”
Justice Quddhose also observed, following the Supreme Court’s 1956 verdict in Kartar Singh vs State of Punjab, that people in power must develop ‘thick skins’. In other words, the authorities should have broad enough shoulders to bear criticism.
This decision is very relevant in the prevailing situation today. Nowadays politicians in power are often very touchy, with huge egos, and unwilling to put up with any criticism from anyone. Well known cases are of Safoora Zargar, a young Kashmiri woman arrested on patently fabricated charges for criticising the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, Dr Kafeel Khan etc.
Prof Ambikesh Mahapatra of Jadavpur University was arrested in 2012 for sharing a cartoon of West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerji on social media, cartoonist Aseem Trivedi was arrested on a charge of sedition for making a cartoon depicting politicians as corrupt, and folk singer Kovan was arrested in Tamil Nadu in 2015 for criticising Jayalalithaa in connection with corruption in liquor business.
Journalists who criticise the govt or a Minister are often slapped with sedition charges or detained under draconian laws like NSA or UAPA, e.g. Kishorechand Wangkhem who was arrested in 2018 for criticising Manipur CM Biren Singh. A journalist, Pawan Jaiswal, was arrested in Uttar Pradesh in 2019 for reporting that children in a primary school in Mirzapur were being given only roti and salt as a mid-day meal. The researcher-columnist Abhijit Iyer-Mitra was denied bail by the bench of the Supreme Court presided over by then CJI ( and now MP) Ranjan Gogoi in December 2018 although his only ‘offence’ was at most a minor one – of posting a satirical tweet on the Konark temple (for which too he had promptly apologised).
On May 11, Dhavai Patel, editor of a Gujarati online portal ‘Face of the Nation’ was arrested for sedition for publishing a news item that the Gujarat chief minister, Vijay Rupani, was likely to be replaced.
It is time now for the Indian judiciary to resume its role of guardians of the Constitution and protectors of the liberties of the people.