The Supreme Court recently observed rather sternly that “it is time to define the limits of sedition”. The heartening observation has not come a day early. There is no period in our history when Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code, pertaining to sedition, has been invoked as often as today. The Centre and several state governments have been rather too quick to invoke this grave section routinely when faced with divergent voices and criticism. Instances where the UAPA and other strident laws have been invoked for apparently minor offences are also on the rise. In all such instances, the provocation for initiating arrests and denial of bail is criticism of the government on a particular issue or policy, or expression of a view divergent from that of the regime in power.
The recent observation of the Supreme Court was made in the context of the Andhra Pradesh government clamping the sedition law on two TV channels that had criticised its inept handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. Some time ago, the arrest of the young environment activist Disha Ravi had invited national and international concern. A Facebook post by a young man pleading for an oxygen cylinder for his ailing grandfather had invited the wrath of the UP government, which proceeded against him for maligning the image of the government. Publication of photos of bodies of the dead floating on the Ganga too had been resisted by the UP government.
Social media posts by activists and people with differing viewpoints are invariably assaulted (online mercifully) by pro-government enthusiasts in unbecoming language. The Malayalam actor Prithviraj, who had returned from Lakshadweep, had remarked that the developments in the island are a matter of concern. Within a few hours, social media was abuzz with abusive responses in the choicest noxious diction. The Facebook account of the noted poet Satchidanandan was blocked for 24 hours at the behest of the government after he had aired some critical comments. Such instances are on the rise. The Centre has already issued restrictive rules to control the contents in OTT platforms. The latest rules to regulate social media platforms like Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter, etc., are facing legal challenges on the ground that they infringe upon the norms of individual privacy.
This continuous watchfulness, bordering on obsession with criticism or dissent, is showing its slow and uneasy effect on several intellectuals, academics, columnists and journalists. They are confronting the tragic realisation that governments not only attach scant value to these informed suggestions and counterviews but are keen to demonise them. Besides, it often triggers online and offline harassment. It is not without reason that some newspapers and magazines are wary of publishing articles critical of the government.
To say that democracy decays in the absence of criticism, discussions and debates is stressing the obvious. What is intriguing, however, is the pathological desire of governments to hear only eulogies. What other meaning can be read into this nervousness and thoughtless clamping of sedition and other strident laws on journalists and dissenters? It means: ‘no criticism, only praises’. That presupposes a mindset of those in power to treat their decisions and actions as perfect, something that cannot be improved any further! Without some concerned individual pointing out fault lines and shortcomings, and offering alternatives, how does any government improve its accountability, responsiveness and efficiency? In the present traumatic times, when human life is beset with deprivation, difficulties and mortality, it is only natural that the media and sensitive individuals draw attention to instances of human misery. They should be treated as the declaration of the inherent faith in the government and its capacity to respond rather than disloyalty and treason.
It would be too far-fetched for governments to believe that there are no dissenting or critical voices on several serious issues affecting the country. Every citizen cannot be expected to believe that the demands of the agitating farmers are unreasonable or that they are being manipulated by anti-national forces. Those who think that the vaccine policy should have been more thoughtful, egalitarian and humane cannot be treated as anti-people. Someone who questions the veracity of government statistics on Covid deaths is not anti-national. They are entitled to their views. Other than through print, electronic and social media, how can people express themselves? A pliant, silent and uncritical citizenry is not what gives democracy its sheen and sinews. The Indian ‘We, the people’, emboldened by our sterling Constitution, were always proud of the fundamental right to express our views without fear. This freedom available to the citizens is what makes them the practitioners and inheritors of guaranteed democratic values. Any sustained assailing of this space can only be treated as an attempt to ‘replace truth with power’.
Apart from the practical decimation of its legitimacy, continued vindictive intolerance of democratic governments towards criticism and dissent is an act of self-blinding. It forfeits valuable opportunities to resolve issues that are draining the government’s energies. Nothing can be more lethal in a democracy than self-righteousness and self-blindness. The legislature, opposition parties and the media are the major sources of alternative views. What is couched in the language of criticism or attack on the government often contains an alternative point of view for the government to consider. Castigating those who criticise or hold another view makes any government an airtight chamber. Devoid of ventilation, the air inside the chamber is soon bound to be fouled. Democracy wilts in that staleness. As critical as oxygen is for the breathless Covid patient, freedom of thought and expression is to a citizen in a democracy.
Former Kerala chief secretary and ex-VC, Thunchath Ezhuthachan Malayalam Varsity