The cost of dissent in the great democracy of India.

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The Bhartiya Janta Party is often characterized as an extremist and right-wing oriented. The party led by Shri. Narendra Modi have aggressively put forth their idea of a Hindu Rashtra. In midst of which the ethnic minorities of the country have lost a safe-space and survive under a constant threat. Their rising slogans of ‘Jai Shree Ram’ has occupied a dimension apart from just being a religious chant, it has become a political motto entirely tearing apart the values of secularism in the country. In a speech delivered at 102nd Indian Science Congress in Mumbai early in June last year, our beloved Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi, said that “dialogue and healthy “criticism of the government is the strength of a democracy”. He also went ahead and warned the media against excessive “allegations” as doing so “weakened democracy.” However, to the very contrary of his statement after holding the power, his last and present tenure has displayed an extremist attitude with a very regressive approach towards the voices of criticism and dissent in the country. Statistics reveal that there has been a sharp rise in the number of speech related crime in the country since the BJP government assumed office. Over the past six years of Modi governance, we have not only seen rising cases of sedition but also numerous cases of mob lynching specially targeting the muslim, harassment of journalists, etc.

India is the new Lynchistan:

A research report reveals that a total of 63 cow vigilante attacks had occurred in India between 2010 and mid-2017, mostly since the Modi government came to power in 2014. What is even more concerning is that 24 out of 28 victims who were killed due to lynching belonged to the Muslim community. This is surely a matter of concern in the greatest democracy of the world, which rests of the idea of secularism and socialism. The age hold motto that India is united by diversity is under great threat today, where the racial minorities are not only suppressed but harassed at the hands of the state forces. The lynching map of India is certainly painted in saffron across all states.

In times as delicate as the one we are living in today, it is of utmost importance that there be a safe space for the voices of the country. Active and vocal opposition of this state-sponsored bigotry seems to be the only way out. However, the seekers of peace and justice in the country have to pay a big price in the democratic reign on Shri. Narendra Modi. The political wing of the conservative group Rashtriya Sangathan Sangh is spreading an environment of intolerance and extremism around the world in fulfilment of their idea of a Hindu Rashtra.

Open letter by 49 celebrities:

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In late July this year, 49 celebrities expressed serious concerns at the steep rise in the number of “religious identity-based hate crimes” in India. They issued an open letter to the Prime Minister Narendra Modi condemning the culture of lynchings that is breeding in the country. The letter was signed by 49 celebrities including Ramchandra Guha, Shyam Benegal, Aparna Sen and Anurag Kashyap. The letter addressed to the Prime Minister displayed alarm as to how the famous ‘Jai Shri Ram’slogan has become a provocative war cry with many lynchings taking place in its name, targeting the Muslim minority in the country.

 

The signatories of the letter identified themselves as a group of ‘peace-loving proud Indians’ who were worried over the recent rise in tragic events in their ‘beloved country’. The letter made an unequivocal demand to the head of the state to immediately stop the lynchings of Muslim, Dalits and other thriving minorities in the country. They relied their claims on the records by the National Crime Records Bureau [NCRB] which shows that there has been a total of 840 instances of atrocities against Dalits in 2016 along with a low percentage of convictions. Based on the findings of different crime-related research in the country, the letter identified a general increase in the percentage of religious and identity-based hate crimes and among the victims, 62% are victims. The numbers speak for the intolerance towards the Muslim minorities and perpetrating violence in the name of religion. Among these hate crimes, 90% were post the BJP assuming power. The letter made a contention reminding the Prime Minister that we are no longer living in the Middle Ages and of his executive authority to stop wars in the name of Ram which is sacred to many in the majority community of India. Moving towards a resolution to the problem, the letter stated that some extra step has to be taken rather than making speeches about lynching in the Parliament. It suggested attaching exemplary punishment to the perpetrator and making the crime of lynching non-bailable.

 

It also highlighted the imprudent practice of tagging people and organization as ‘anti-national’ for the sole reason of their expression of dissent. Dissent should be a democratic expression, not a tool of oppression. The letter read:

“There is no democracy without dissent. People should not be branded anti-national or urban Naxal and incarcerated because of dissent against the government.”

 

The letter cleared the air of synonymy between a ruling party and the image, saying anti-governmental comments are not necessarily anti-national statements; suggesting that the basis of a stronger nation is open and free dissent. A film-maker Aparna who was amogst the 49 who signed the letter gave her remarks to the press as follows:

“How would I, as a Hindu, feel if I’m forced to say ‘Allahu Akbar’? I would resent it. I think people have right to say ‘Allahu Akbar’, ‘Jai Shri Ram’, ‘Jai Maa Kali’ or ‘Jai Hind’, whatever, but it has to be said with love,” she said.

Union Minister MukhtarAbbas Naqvi responded to the letter saying that the minority communities and Dalits in the country are safe and criminal incidents in the country should in no way be communalised.

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‘Selective Outrage’ and ‘False Narrative’

The letter soon after its issuance was met with criticism from another group of celebrities. At least 61 prominent personalities including actor Kangana Ranaut and lyricist Prasoon Joshi have penned down a counter letter, in criticism to the earlier letter endorsed by 49 celebrities written to the Prime Minister, expressing concern for the increasing trend of hate crimes incidents in the country.

The fresh letter alleges the earlier document for selective outrage and false narratives” which has been signed by other prominent personalities including classical dancer and MP Sonal Mansingh, filmmakers Madhur Bhandarkar and Vivek Agnihotri.

The cost of dissent in India: FIR against 49 celebrities who signed the open letter

On October 4, 2019 on the complaint of a local advocate Sudhir Kumar Ojha an FIR was registered against the signatories of the open letter. The FIR was registered in Muzaffarpur before the Chief Judicial Magistrate Surya Kanti Tiwari. All 49 signatories of the open letter were name as accused and the allegation was ‘tarnishing the image of the country. ‘Undermining the impressive performance of the prime minister’ and ‘supporting secessionist tendencies’. Therefore, the complaint invoked the sections pertaining to sedition, public nuisance, hurting religious feelings and insulting with an intent to provoke breach of peace.

Soon after filing of the FIR, over other 180 other members of the creative community including renowned cinematographer Anand Pradhan, historian Romila Thapar, actor Naseeruddin Shah and activist Harsh Mander endorsed with the earlier letter saying ‘more of us will speak everyday’. They condemned the FIR and issued a fresh letter to the prime minister asking how writing a letter to the head of the state can be qualified as an act of sedition. They intended that this was nothing but harassment of the celebrities to stifle any dissent arising from the community. The signatories to the letters identified themselves as a part of the Indian cultural community and as citizens of conscience who have come together to condemn the harassment of co-workers. They have not only condemned the filing of the FIR but unequivocally sided with the letter written by their colleagues appealing the cultural, academic as well as legal communities to come out in support. They make their intention clear that they will continue to speak against incidents of mob lynching everyday, against the tyranny of the government to silence the voice of people, against the misuse of the judiciary to intimidate the citizens of this country.

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The move of the government to implicate the renowned celebrities in a false case of sedition was condemned across the nation not only by the cultural community but also by politicians of the opposition.

Thin-skinned Government:

From a strictly legal perspective, it is seen that the standard of proof in cases of sedition or defamation against the government or government officials is generally higher. This is so because owing to their position in the country, criticism and opposition to their moves and policy is a reasonable presumption. The draconian nature of sedition law has been widely discussed in literature, but its practical implementation has a worse face that what is seems in the text. Recently, a sitting judge of the Supreme Court Justice Deepak Gupta in a lecture on sedition had very rightly put out the jurisprudence of sedition law in India. He said:

“The people in power must develop thick skins. They cannot be oversensitive to people who make fun of them. If intemperate, uncivilised and defamatory language is used, then the remedy is to file proceedings for defamation but not prosecute the persons for sedition or creating disharmony.”

Therefore, resorting to FIR on charges of sedition is surely not a legally sound move to make. However, it indeed creates a sense of fear in the minds of the public. Maybe, it is too soon to call the political situation in the country as  a Nazi rule in toto, but we are surely not far. The government in power has succeeded in spreading an environment of hate and intolerance across the spans of the country. Anyone with a view not aligning to the political ideology of the BJP, largely the RSS will fear before speaking freely in the country. Bhakts seem to have forgotten that India is the biggest democracy in the world, known for thriving in diversity. Any attack on the freedom of the citizens of the country or the diversity that ties us together as one nation should be seen as an attack on the nation itself. Modi Government is surely destroying the Bharat Rashtra to give way to their communally centred and homogeneous Hindu Rashtra.

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