Suppressing dissent is the trademark of an authoritarian and intolerant government. Under such a government, holding an opposing opinion on subjects related to nationalism and religion can invite wrath of the government through every power available under them. Radical nationalists have always tried to enforce their own version of political and religious history by spreading misinformation, misrepresenting facts and breaking dissent to divide the social fabric in society.
Freedom of expression, one of the basic fundamental rights, is the biggest threat to a communal government. Media channels, NGOs, intellectuals and social activists who dare to raise their voices against the authoritarian government are silenced by the misuse of laws and regulations.
A political party getting a full majority mandate in an election does not mean that the rest who did not vote for them are to remain silent. Dissent against policies and functioning against the government is never anti-national. Holding an opposition view against the Prime Minister or government does not make anyone anti-national. The right to hold dissent is the biggest and strongest right the Constitution has provided to this nation. No democracy is possible with the existence of dissent.
As long as a person or organisation does not break any law or strive to break peace in society, they have the right to have different opinions than every other citizen of the country.
Criticism is what keeps a democratic government on its toes. Criticism of the judiciary, executive, administrative and armed forces cannot be put under the radar of ‘anti-national’. It is the right and moral duty of every citizen to question, oppose, verify and demand accountability from their ruling government. Expressing dissent against the government and its prominent leaders can never be the same as working against the nation.
Very often, in the disguise of national interest, the government and its functioning authorities have been trying to silence any kind of dissent against themselves and their policies. So, it came as no surprise when, after amending the citizenship laws in the country, PM Modi accused the opposition and its leaders of speaking the language of Pakistan. Pro-government TV media channels took it as their responsibility to paint any protest against the government as ‘anti-national’ or ‘Pakistan supporters. During protests against the Citizen Amendment Law, the government warned media outlets from reporting any kind of “public discontent” or “anything that promotes anti-national sentiments”.
Targeting the mainstream media and announcing warnings in Parliament sessions are not meant to be taken lightly. The ruling government has often announced threats or even persecuted those who have spoken against the government’s policies. Social activists have been held in detention centres under the National Security Act to prevent them from organising any protests. Critics of the government and its working have been charged with sedition, criminal defamation and even terrorism.
The government has made sure to use every card on its deck to suppress dissent against itself. Financial authorities have been used to investigate critics and media houses, and also preventive measures such as barring activists from travelling abroad to inform international outlets.
Charges of sedition on social activists have become more common than petty theft. In October 2019, the Bihar Police filed a case of sedition against 49 people, including many well-known Bollywood personalities, for writing an open letter to the democratically-elected Prime Minister Narendra Modi expressing concerns over the striking increase in hate crime and mob-lynching against minority communities.
The case was shut down only after widespread condemnation against the actions of the Bihar Police. In an investigation. Scroll found that over 10,000 members belonging to Adivasi Community in Jharkhand have been charged with sedition for disturbing public order.
Media outlets that have not yet sold their spine to the government are under constant pressure to self-censor themselves and not step on any toes in the government. The government has used criminal defamation and social media trolls to target journalists. In June 2019, the Uttar Pradesh Police arrested three journalists on the charge of criminal defamation for posting a video of a woman claiming to be in love with an already-much-loved Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath.
A journalist in Telangana was slapped with criminal charges under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act for critical writings against the State and Central Governments. These are not just isolated incidents. Charges of criminal conspiracy and sedition are commonly used to suppress any form of dissent. In August, an independent media-house put forth a complaint of “a complete subversion of media freedom” as its founders were barred by immigration authorities for travelling abroad on grounds of a total hoax and baseless corruption case.
The Government of India has involved itself in extreme actions against activists who discuss Human Rights abuses by the government at international forums. The Foreign Contribution Regulation Act is often used by the governments to curb the foreign funding of civil societies that are critical towards the government. Quite deservingly, India dropped to a bad place in the World Press Freedom Index by earning Rank 142 in a list of 180 countries. The National Crime Records Bureau statistics from the year 2014-2016 showed that there were a total of 179 arrests made on the charges of sedition, but no charge sheet was filed in 70% of the total cases till the end of 2016.
The rate of conviction in the cases of sedition is extremely low, but it’s the process itself, which can take years in court, that is the punishment. The Indian Judiciary has repeatedly held up that the right to dissent and criticise are necessary elements of Freedom of Speech and Expression. This right is an ‘enabler’ of other rights such as economic, social justice, political and cultural rights. The arbitrary use of criminal laws for curbing freedom of expression would create a chilling effect and lead to other human rights violations.
The chilling effect has already made its grip in India. The price of dissent is very high in India, from being charged as anti-national on the prime time news shows, criminal defamation cases, to being accused of terrorism and social media trolling. Authorities should realise that criticism is a good first step. Criticism can save the authorities an embarrassment at a later stage. The government needs to realise that criticism can bring corrective measures to the system and improve the state of rights for all.
Note: The article is an excerpt from the book No one gets to walk away: Media, Politics, Religion and more by the same author.