Hypocrisy of free speech

Omar’s concern over ABVP attack on Geelani exposes his duplicity

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Hurriyat leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani’s heckling by ABVP activists sparked widespread condemnation in the mainstream camp and on the face of it, it just seems quite politically correct for any sane person to oppose anything that is undemocratic. The Hindutva brigade’s increasing indulgence in hooligan acts to scuttle any voices of dissent, anything that is against their strain of politics or is deemed anti-culture is far too ugly for voices, which cherish democracy and hold the fundamental rights of citizens in high esteem to make any arguments over that.

But it is nothing short of a paradox when such concern is strongly expressed by chief minister Omar Abdullah, who needs to introspect into his own record as head of Jammu and Kashmir’s ruling coalition of having allowed free speech, dissent and right to protest to be brutally scuttled. The chief minister who has vociferously been tweeting about since the Geelani episode needs a look in his own backyard to realise that J&K today presents an ugly picture of denial of a democratic space for free expression.

The protests of 2010 summers were met with heinous and brutal killings by police and security forces that come under his unified command. His own administration has maintained that over 100 of the 130 people who died were innocents but he has done precious little to ensure any element of accountability for those brutal killings. In fact, ever since he held the reins of state administration, particularly after 2010, there has been a virtual blanket ban on any kind of protests, political in nature or simply over development issues and unemployment. Section 144 CrPC which was earlier imposed only in the Valley has been extended also to the winter capital where protests are disallowed, not just outside and near the secretariate but anywhere within the municipal limits of Jammu city. Protestors continue to be brutally handled with fisticuffs, lathicharge, tear gassing, water canons and even threatened with firing.

The Boniyar killing, a simple non-political protest over non-supply of electricity, is far uglier than the ugliness of the saffronised hoodlums, and demonstrates beyond a shadow of doubt that space for free speech and right to protest as enshrined in the Indian constitution does not exist in the state he is heading the regime of. Political dissent, whether separatist in nature or mainstream, is not tolerated. Omar cannot be oblivious of the fact that it is during his reign that youth have been picked up and detained under public safety act for airing their views on social networking sites.

His disapproval of the Hindutva tactics against free speech seem equally hollow in view of the excessive use of such elements within his own state particularly in Jammu region, without any check by his administration, to stall any free speech that doesn’t suit both the saffron brigade and the government. Seminars and programmes have been stalled at the behest of the likes of Shiv Sena, ABVP and Vishwa Hindu Parishad goons, with administration only playing the role of a mute spectator, switching off the chief minister into an equally mute mode.

There are obvious indicators of elements within his own administration being hand in glove with such elements but he conveniently either chooses to skirt such incidents or remains ignorant about them. Last year Shabir Shah was heckled and disallowed when IDP organised a seminar in Kathua. Detained Kashmir Bar president was heckled by Shiv Sena goons inside a police station premises and the next day a case was registered against the senior lawyer himself for what official said ‘raising anti-national slogans.’ In the light of these facts, Omar Abdullah’s new found concern for free speech turns out to be a case of sheer hypocrisy.