By Heena Khan:
“If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.”–George Washington.
The quote stated above bares tremendous similitude to Arundhati Roy’s utterance regarding the gagging of public opinion, chiefly because it is not in accord with the actions and strategies of the political authorities. Post October 21st meeting on Kashmir, “Azadi: The only Way” in New Delhi, complaints for alleged acts of sedition were lodged against Roy , Syed Ali Shah Geelani and many others who dared to voice their opinions against the Indian government’s apathetic attitude towards the denizens of Kashmir.
The complainant was Sushil Pandit, an advertising professional serving the BJP. This revelation should slightly clear the clouds hovering over this issue. Most of us have become accustomed to the petty politics played by parties like BJP. But what is bewildering and disillusioning is the judgement rendered by the concerned judge, Navita Kumari Bagha, Metropolitan Magistrate of the Patiala Courts, ordering the Delhi Police to file FIR’s against the accused. Her pronouncement marks a conspicuous and complete shift from the verdicts, hitherto rendered by the Supreme courts in similar legal suits.
In the Kedar Nath Singh vs. State of Bihar case of 1962, the Supreme court had held that criticism of public measures or comment on governmental action, however strongly worded, if within reasonable limits and consistent with the fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression, is not affected by this provision. It is only when the words have the pernicious tendency or intention to create public disorder or disturbance of law and order that the law steps in.
The Delhi police had reported before the magistrate that the speech made by Arundhati Roy was devoid of any of the essential ingredients of sedition under Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code. Thus the magistrate’s verdict can be looked upon as an attempt of violating the basic right of freedom of speech guaranteed by the Indian Constitution to the citizens.
This has not been the lone instance when freedom of speech of citizens has been encroached upon by the so-called protectors and guardians of these very rights.
In another recent judicial intervention the Supreme Court hauled Teesta Setalvad, a human rights activist, over the coals for approaching the United Nations forum on human rights about the Gujarat riots. She was severely reprimanded by the apex court for having sent two letters concerning the inadequate protection rendered to the Gujarat riots witnesses to the United Nations. The airing of her grievances to the international body were considered as un-called for in the name of allowing “outside agencies to oversee” India’s problems.
Thus the very guardians of our fundamental rights are ostensibly donning the mantle of encroachers of those rights as well. There stands an urgent need to check this trend if we wish to safeguard our freedom of expression.