Tacit support to free speech attacks?

BY Geeta Seshu| IN Media Freedom | 06/06/2014
The new government's silence on the spate of attacks on free speech is ominous.
Who, then, will rein in the vigilantes, asks GEETA SESHU

The shocking and senseless killing of Mohsin Shaikh, an IT engineer in Pune, is a dangerous indication of the charged political atmosphere in the country, when both lynch mob justice and legal means are used as reprisal for dissenting or satirical comment against ‘holy cows’.  

The IT professional whose garb clearly marked him out to be a Muslim, was brutally attacked by rampaging mobs who took offense at morphed pictures of Shiv Sena leader Bal Thackeray and Shivaji that were circulated on Facebook. Shaikh, reports say, was not in any way connected with the posts.

Barely 15 days into the newly elected BJP government and the free speech radar has gone haywire. In Bhatkal town in coastal Karnataka, an Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) activist, Waqas Barmawar, was arrested by police for allegedly circulating a disapproving post on the election of BJP leader Narendra Modi as Prime Minister and in Goa, an FIR was lodged against Devu Chodankar for sending messages against the BJP’s Prime Ministerial candidate Narendra Modi. Chodankar, who was questioned by cyber crime police, has defended his posts. 

And book publishers continued to cave under pressure from right-wing Hindu groups, the latest being Orient Longman, which decided to withdraw copies of Rhodes scholar Dr Megha Kumar’s book ‘Communalism and Sexual Violence: Ahmedabad Since 1969’. 

The tragic murder of the IT professional in Pune was sparked off by Shiv Sena protests across Western Maharashtra and Navi Mumbai over the Facebook posts and police are still trying to ascertain the originators of the posts or their ISP addresses. 

But instead of putting all its might behind efforts to curb the violence and book members of the Hindu Rashtra Sena, which was reported to be behind the attack on the Pune techie, the Maharashtra police decided to book all those who ‘liked’ a Facebook post allegedly derogatory to the deceased Shiv Sena leader Bal Thackeray.  

Whatever happened to the prudence displayed barely a few months ago by the very same police force when Shiv Sainiks went on the rampage in a housing society in Mumbai to protest another alleged offensive Facebook post. Then, the police pacified and controlled the mob and investigated the complaint before actually arresting anyone. It turned out the post originated from a hacked account! 

Taking citizen policing to another level 

In Chodankar’s case, an industrialist and former Confederation of Indian Industries (CII) state president Atul Pai Kane, decided to take offence at his posts, which asked Goans not to vote for the BJP. One post said: "If Modi is elected as PM this election, Christians will lose their identity in South Goa. Mark these words." Another post said, "There is an imminent threat of holocaust as it happened in Gujarat though under the garb of cunning government policies of (Manohar) Parrikar. Save the identity of South Goa. Vote against BJP this election." 

The MMS that got Barmawar into trouble was a picture he forwarded to friends that showed a corpse morphed with Modi’s face. The tagline said “ab ki baar, antim sanskaar’, paraphrasing the BJP’s election slogan of ‘ab ki baar, Modi sarkar’. 

Arguably, more trenchant and vitriolic pictures circulated during the run up to the elections. Whatsapp messages and pictures expressing a range of views and opinions flew thick and fast in different groups. But in this instance, it was accidentally forwarded to a BJP supporter in Belgaum. Barmawar was felled by the same law that did Professor Ambikesh Mohapatra in: Sec 66 (a) of the IT Act, which decrees that anyone who takes offence at any electronic communication can complain to police. The accused face upto three to five years in jail. 

In 2012, Mohapatra forwarded a cartoon poking fun at West Bengal Chief Minister Mamta Banerjee to members of a cooperative housing society he was the secretary of – and one of them, who was already on opposing terms with Mohapatra over internal housing society matters, turned out to be a Trinamool Congress member. He took offense at the circulation of the cartoon and complained to the police. 

Does the police force recall the guidelines issued by the Union government in the wake of the arrests of the students from Palghar – that an IG-level police officer would investigate complaints lodged under the IT Act? Issued in the wake of protests over the Palghar arrests, the guidelines don’t really make much difference to the implementation of Sec 66 (a) of the IT Act, except to make investigations more thorough and deter indiscriminate police action. 

Government support for silencing dissent 

At the centre, the NDA government’s studious silence over these arrests and the death of the Pune techie is ominous. Minus the comment of the BJP’s Pune MP, Anil Shirole, that the reaction was ‘natural’, and a report sought from the Maharashtra government on general security, no major minister or BJP leader has come out in support of free speech or against these arrests. 

In Goa, the Parrikar government came out in support of the FIR against Chodankar and went a step further in attacking Fr Cedric Prakash, a well known Ahmedabad-based human rights activist and Catholic priest. In a media briefing, the Chief Minister reportedly compared Fr Prakash to Sri Ram Sene’s Pramod Mutalik! 

Of course, successive governments have been giving support, tacit or otherwise, to the silencing of dissent or even the expression of any viewpoint, however innocuous, satirical or plain different. As it is, the BJP and the Sangh Parivar’s record on free speech issues have been abysmal. No matter that several leaders in this party spoke out against the IT Act earlier.

Now, the party is in government and already empowered with a draconian law that curbs free speech. So far, no attempt has been made by any senior party leader or member of government to rein in its vigilantes. Why are they silent?

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