While article 19(1)(a) does not provide absolute freedom of speech and expression to the citizens of the country (with restrictions regarding sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the State, contempt of court, etc.), the restrictions have historically been used against voices of dissent (primarily left-wing activists) by the State.
In the last 2 years, India has been home to various citizen-led movements; the big ones being the anti-CAA-NRC and farmers’ protest. The government in power has tried its utmost to counter dissent. The crackdowns on these protests have led to activists being jailed under the UAPA and other draconian laws.
The government’s crackdown on free speech and expression started with the arrest of peaceful anti-CAA-NRC protesters. With protesters undeterred, various student-led protests sprang up around the country. The Jamia Millia Islamia incident led to protests on campuses around India.
Sharjeel Imam was one of the protesters arrested. Since the aftermath of the North Delhi riots, he has been in judicial custody and is charged with criminal conspiracy. Umar Khalid has also been charged under the same case. Their judicial custody has been extended yet again. Many other activists like Safoora Zargar and people who have voiced their opinions against these laws have been jailed.
The government took similar exception to the Dilli Chalo movement by farmers. Farmers were initially stopped from entering Delhi and were subjected to lathis and tear gas. The farm union leaders decided to stage a sit-in protest at Delhi’s borders.
Nodeep Kour, a 23-year-old Dalit labour activist, was arrested near the Singhu border where she was participating in a protest held by unpaid labourers. Nodeep, along with 1,500 labourers, had been a part of the Singhu border protests since December. Small farmers and labourers fear the laws will cripple their livelihoods.
Nodeep was raising her voice for the rights and livelihood of the most vulnerable. She was arrested in connection with three cases and has been in jail since 12 January. She has allegedly been tortured and beaten in custody.
After talks with the government came to a standstill, the farm union leaders decided to march to the Capital on Republic Day. Violence ensued during the tractor rally on 26 January and the government planned to have the protest sites on Delhi’s borders vacated. Internet services were blocked for a couple of days. But the farmers have decided to stay put.
Several FIRs were filed against farm union leaders and other activists and protesters. Shashi Tharoor, Rajdeep Sardesai and others were charged for tweeting about the death of a protester. While police officials claim he died after losing control of his tractor, family members alleged that post-mortem revealed he was shot.
Many journalists covering the protests have been abused and arrested. Mandeep Punia was beaten, intimidated and taken into police custody on 30 January while filming the police abusing migrants at the Singhu border. The police initially did not reveal where they took him, and Punia could not call his lawyers or wife. He was eventually granted bail on 2 February.
On the Centre’s request on 30 January, more than 250 accounts tweeting in favour of the farmers’ protest were blocked by Twitter. The major accounts included that of the Caravan Magazine and Kisan Ekta Morcha. The orders were issued under Section 69A of the IT Act.
Although Twitter later restored the accounts, under pressure from the Centre, they have now permanently blocked over 500 accounts that have been critical of Modi and the BJP government.
Any major protest anywhere in the world will garner international attention. The same happened with the farmers’ protest. And after Rihanna and other influential activists and people tweeted their support for the protest, the MHA and other Indian celebrities went into damage control mode to protect India’s “sovereignty”. It led to threats and harassment of those who supported the farmers’ protest on Twitter.
The major talking point has been the tweet by Greta Thunberg. She shared a protest “toolkit” on Twitter, which was deemed the reason by the police for the Republic Day violence. The public document she shared talked about organising and executing peaceful agitations. The document did not promote or support violence.
And in connection with the toolkit a 21-year-old climate activist from Bengaluru, Disha Ravi, was arrested by the Delhi Police. Along with her, arrest warrants were issued against lawyer Nikita Jacobs and environmentalist Shantanu Muluk. They are accused of editing and creating the toolkit and organising a Twitter movement to spread awareness about the protest. The police allege it led to the 26 January violence.
They have been charged with sedition, incitement of violence and incitement of hatred between communities for editing and sharing the document. A Zoom meeting with Poetic Justice Foundation, which police allege is pro-Khalistani, is also one reason for their arrest.
Search warrants were issued prior and the police searched Jacobs’ house and seized her gadgets. The police also searched through Ravi’s phone and revealed she had conversations with Thunberg where she shared the toolkit with her.
While Jacobs and Muluk have filed for anticipatory bail, Disha Ravi was arrested in Bengaluru and taken to Delhi without a transit remand. She has been arrested on weak charges as there is no connection between the violence on 26 January and the Google document (toolkit) with information and resources of the farmers’ protest. She wasn’t able to have legal representation of her own choice and was sent to 5 days of police custody.
In 2018, Dalit and Tribal activists were targetted and accused of plotting the Prime Minister’s assassination in the Bhima-Koregaon case. Rona Wilson and 15 other people were arrested in connection to the case. But an independent report by a digital forensic analyst, Arsenal Consultancy, concluded that the documents used to convict the activists were planted on Wilson’s laptop. It also suggested that a government agency might have been involved in the conspiracy.
Comedian Munawar Faruqui was recently arrested along with four others and kept in jail for 37 days while their bail proceedings were being postponed and dismissed. They were arrested from a cafe in Indore where he was performing after a complaint was filed against him by the son of a BJP MP. He was accused of hurting religious sentiments for a joke he made in April 2020. Some of his colleagues have still not been granted bail.
Those in power have long targeted activists and protesters who have gone against the wishes of the status-quo. Any statement the government doesn’t like is labelled sedition. The BJP government’s supporters have taken it upon themselves to label anyone against their views as anti-nationals.
This clampdown on reasonable voices and normalisation of certain views has led to the current state of affairs. Misinformed rhetoric has led to an increase in attacks on vulnerable and minority communities.
In the current scenario, various aspects of freedom of speech and expression are being violated. Freedom of Press, Right to Broadcast, Right to Information and Right to Criticise are all under threat. Flimsy grounds are being used as justification for the restrictions.
Are there two India’s? Newslaundry recently revealed in a report how Kapil Mishra has been spreading hatred and mobilising hate groups via the Telegram app. The Telegram groups are used to circulate resource materials and organise Twitter campaigns. Unlike the document shared by Thunberg (which is non-violent), these groups are used to manifest Islamophobic, anti-Sikh and other problematic rhetoric.
Kapil Mishra was also one of the catalysts of the North Delhi riots. He threatened violence against anti-CAA protesters who had blocked roads. He had warned the police that he would take matters into his own hands if the protesters didn’t vacate the area. A couple of days later, communal riots in North Delhi led to the death of 53 people, predominantly Muslim. Countless homes were destroyed and several people were displaced.
While those who oppose the government’s decisions and ideology are arrested for merely speaking up, “leaders” like Kapil Mishra are given a free hand to incite violence and mobilise and brainwash crowds into believing problematic ideas.
While “free speech warriors” in India, like Tejasvi Surya, were mad at Twitter and other social media platforms for blocking Donald Trump’s account after he incited the violence at the Capitol, the same people justify and celebrate the arbitrary arrests of those who criticise the present government and its policies.