In a ringing endorsement of a universal democratic view that voicing anti-government views is not sedition, the Supreme Court shot down a so-called public interest litigation by a couple of individuals against Farooq Abdullah, the senior Kashmiri leader and former chief minister of J&K. Regardless of whether the litigation was inspired or not by the forces that be, the truth is freedom of speech in a democracy is being challenged every day. There is a clear pattern to be seen behind offence being taken at every turn at any view expressed that runs contrary to the rigid opinions of the majoritarians who are quite willing to be at odds with India’s tradition of tolerance and pluralism.
The criminalising of dissent is the clearest sign of an authoritarian government. There was a stinging lesson for the authorities in the Disha Ravi case when a learned judge, quoting the Rig Veda, said — “Let noble thoughts come to me from all directions” — to uphold the right of the activist to internationalise the farmers’ stir issue. The cause of action was described as intent “to wage economic, social, culture and regional war against India”. How very conveniently the political is covered into an issue for patriotism is revealing of how any deviation from the State’s view on an issue as humongous as the farmers’ agitation involving a very sizeable section of the population was viewed as that of a heretic who had to be punished.
There is little reason to suspect that the income tax raids on certain Bollywood personalities this week were not inspired by people in power who are trying to throttle celebrities expressing views that are not in consonance with the inflexible opinion of the leaders of the majoritarians. Glib explanations of there being a logical cause for action against tax avoidance do not cut ice. The action, in fact, is suggestive of intimidating tactics against dissent that has been occurring in a pattern of retribution in keeping with a larger modus operandi of making criminals of dissenters through persecution using official India machinery like I-T, ED and the police to register FIRs and foist cases.
Events are all too suggestive of a democracy in decay. Our worst fears were confirmed when India was downgraded to “partly free” for the first time since 1997 in the annual ranking of democracies by the US-government funded research group Freedom House, which cited worsening civil rights under Prime Minister Narendra Modi. As the world’s largest democracy, in which a variety of opinions including dissenting ones must coexist in diverse people who are thought of as conscience keepers of the nation, India can ill afford to drop the safeguards against making criminals out of dissenters.
Mercifully, the courts have not shied away from not only enlarging those accused of high crimes like sedition by using arcane laws out of the British colonial era but rapping the State agencies in presenting instruments of oppression as legitimate criminal and civil charges. Everyone holding an opinion different from the views of official India or the central ruling party is not an inducer of violence or intent on waging a war against the State. It is a blessing that courts are alive to the rule of law and is dismissive of “rule by law”as a wise judge put it while granting bail in one case.