Resisting attacks on free speech

IN Media Freedom | 24/11/2014
Sometimes, all it takes is for one person to stand up and say 'Enough'!
Especially when a a complicit or indifferent police force aids the attacks of vigilantes, says GEETA SESHU
Attacks on free speech, especially by vigilante groups and political party workers, crop up with alarming and depressing regularity. Often, police stand by, doing nothing. Even if the ‘mob’ is just a handful of offence-takers, as one could see in the widely circulated video of the ransacking of a café in Kozhikode for the ‘immorality’ of couples huddled over a cup of coffee!
Last Friday, members of Kabir Kala Manch (KKM), the Maharashtra-based Dalit group of singers and performers, were scheduled to participate in St Joseph’s College in Bengaluru for a ‘Nirankusha: Fearless Speak’ festival organized by Alternative Law Forum in collaboration with Maraa. The KKM sing and perform to themes of protest on social issues and on violence against women, Dalits, minorities, workers’ rights, etc.  Leading members of the KKM are in prison on charges of being pro-Naxalite and one of them, Sheetal Sathe, is currently out on bail.
On the eve of the performance in St Joseph’s College, Bengaluru, police landed up at the college and warned of violence from the BJP’s student wing, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) if the troupe performed.
Alarmed, the college cancelled the performance. It looked like the mere threat of violence had won, yet again. Last year, a KKM performance in Pune had ended in violence, as ABVP activists attacked the performers. This August, a scheduled talk by a leading member of KKM, Sheetal Sathe, at Mumbai’s St Xavier’s College, had to be cancelled, again due to the threat to violence by the ABVP.
But this time, the festival organisers approached the St Aloysius College and its principal, Fr Ambrose Pinto, readily agreed to host the performance. According to reports, the police quickly swung by and warned the college authorities of trouble but this time, the college stood its ground. The Principal is reported to have said he would cancel the performance only if there was an official order against the performance.
Sometimes, all it takes is for one person to stand up and say ‘Enough’! The performance went through, peacefully and without any protest. The police recorded the entire event. Interestingly, police also provided protection – which is what they should have done in the first place!
In the politics of asserting one’s dissent, it is sometimes possible for both sides to make their point peacefully. In 2011, the Hindu Janjagruti Samiti called upon their members to assemble at Nehru Centre in Worli, Mumbai to protest the staging of the play ‘Pencil se brush tak’ on the life of painter M F Husain by Ekjute Theatre Group.  The organization, which had succeeded in getting the theatre group to delete some portions of the play in 2009, decided to stage a silent protest. The Nehru Centre’s chief executive and former Mumbai Police Commissioner Satish Sawhney gave them permission to stage the protest, even as he went ahead with the scheduled performance.
However, this was an exception. Repeatedly, in protests on free speech issues, one sees the failure of the administration and the police to do the very simple task it is mandated with: enforce the law.
In January this year, the acclaimed Pakistani theatre group Ajoka, was invited by the National School of Drama (NSD) to perform at the Bharat Rang Mahotsav in New Delhi but at the eleventh hour, the NSD got cold feet. Citing ‘law and order’ problems, the Ministry of Culture got the performances cancelled. But the plays were held in Akshara Theatre when theatre personalities Gopal Sharman and Jalabala Vaidya stepped in to provide an alternative venue.
In February this year, a film festival in Thrissur, Kerala, was similarly threatened for screening ‘Ocean of Tears’, a film on the Kunan-Poshpara rapes. Then, a mob vandalized the venue, ransacking furniture and damaged the screen. However, those assembled to view the film protested the attack and asserted their right to see the film.
According to reports, police allowed the mob, supporters of the RSS and BJP, to ransack the premises and troop out, without arresting them. The screening was held after they left.
When courageous people stand up and refuse to succumb to threats, they come up against a complicit or indifferent police force. Instead, we need a clear message from the police or administration advocating zero tolerance for violence. How tough is that?


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