Rule 1: The Boss is always right. Rule-2: If the Boss is wrong, see rule 1.
This old joke sums up how the notion of freedom of speech has been put to practice by the present regime in the country.
On Friday, the BJP government at the Centre banned two Malayalam news channels – Asianet News and Media One – for 48 hours for their coverage of the violence in North East Delhi last month. The three main accusations qualified them for the ban. One, that the two channels highlighted the attack on places of worship and were siding towards a particular community on February 25, the third day of the Delhi riots. Second, the reporting seemed to be “biased” as it “deliberately focused on the vandalism of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) supporters”. Third, that the channels questioned RSS and Delhi Police inaction and that they seem to be critical towards Delhi Police and RSS.
The presumption that showcasing of religious places by the channels in the case of Delhi communal violence caused provocation and escalation of violence is odd when it comes more than 10 days after the specific incidence and the television coverage under question. If this indeed makes a legitimate case, then it reflects on the inefficiency of the police. The channels have been accused of questioning RSS and the police, which falls well within the fundamental right to freedom of speech. Neither the police nor the RSS, the parental organization of the ruling BJP, are personifications of the nation. While police are an official institution accountable to the government and the public, the RSS is a socio-religious and political organisation. Criticising either cannot be deemed illegal. Besides, policies or laws brought by the government, especially those hurriedly brought in without consulting all stakeholders as is the case of CAA, are open to criticism. But off late, the very criticism of the CAA is being deemed as akin to an anti-national act and by virtue of this argument, while the opposition to CAA is seen as villainous, its support is considered an act of utmost patriotism. It is with this lens that violence and rhetoric over the CAA is being viewed – while those vandalising in the name of CAA are being treated with kids gloves, those unleashing violence against it are being criminalized. Similarly, hate speeches of one kind have been brushed under the carpet but even sensible appeals for whipping up campaigns against CAA by resort to constitutional and peaceful means vilified.
While two television channels have been picked up for show-casing the pro-CAA violence in poor light, the strong army of television channels that are constantly spewing hate against anti-CAA campaigns, even those of the peaceful kinds, have been let off the hook. This partisan policy is part of a larger pattern that also evinces itself in the way hate speeches of BJP’s Anurag Thakurs and Kapil Mishras have been conveniently condoned and former bureaucrat turned activist, Harsh Mander, is facing the heat for his calls to struggle peacefully against CAA and communal politics.
The use of institutions to further this drill is brazen and bold, even as it remains unconstitutional, unlawful and undemocratic. While the government resorts to the balancing act of viewing the pro-CAA and anti-CAA violence as a matter of simple clash, facts of police siding with the pro-CAA hooligans as they attacked minorities, slayed and injured them or rendered thousands homeless, defy this logic. The police not only protected and shielded many of the right-wing goons but also joined them in the mayhem.
With courts now joining the issue to enhance the state’s bias, it is representative of the dangerous slide the country has swiftly taken. Harsh Mander’s plea in the high court and the latter’s directive to allow Muslim victims, who were earlier being prevented by the police and the mobs, to be taken to the hospitals, led to the punitive transfer of the judge who refused to toe the biased narrative of the state. Much worse, the Supreme Court has denied a hearing to Harsh Mander for registering FIRs against those who made hate speeches, by invoking a distorted version of his (Mander’s) own speech in December in which he allegedly showed “disrespect to Parliament and the court”. The court has even refused to read the transcripts of the speech Mander made, exhorting for a struggle with a passionate plea to “oppose discriminatory and divisive CAA with non-violence and love” so that the mist could be cleared. Neither non-violence, nor love are unconstitutional or illegal. This biashelps to prolong the hearings over the hate speeches made by many Hindu right-wing activists including those in the corridors of power. By default, however, the counter allegations of the latter and an affidavit by the police against Mander are being entertained to deny him a due legal process.
To top it up, the Uttar Pradesh police, which has notoriously become a law unto itself, has put up posters and hoardings with photographs and details of religious minorities who are accused of rioting, asking them to pay penalty even though the due process of law has not reached its culmination and they are not convicted. The accused, as per law, are deemed innocent until proven guilty. Such an exercise that is violative of law and an offence in itself serves the cause of spewing and provoking hatred among ordinary masses blindly being carried away by the present discourse and willing to take to arms and arson to inflict harm on the “other”.
The manner in which free-speech is being tamed but hatred allowed to flow freely is systemic. But, where might becomes the only right, the rule of law can be thrown out of the window and questions simply become ‘illegitimate or anti-national’.