On Tuesday, a judicial magistrate in Chennai refused to remand journalist R Gopal, editor of Nakkeeran, for articles published in the magazine under Section 124 of the Indian Penal Code. His arrest under the Section, on a complaint from Raj Bhavan, was itself greatly shocking as the section refers to “assaulting President, Governor, etc., with intent to compel or restrain the exercise of any lawful power”.
Can such a Section be invoked against publication of news articles, that too from as long as six months ago, was the question raised by the journalist’s lawyers as well as many in the media. The magistrate’s refusal to remand Gopal is at least the second recent instance of the lower judiciary in Tamil Nadu holding to account police for overzealously arresting individuals under stringent sections.
The other incident was the arrest of activist Thirumurugan Gandhi on sedition charges for speaking at an UN event about the Thoothukudi police firing in which 13 people were killed. He was set free after the magistrate pointed out that the video of his speech had been uploaded to the internet by the UN agency and not him and refused to remand him. After being set free, Gandhi was arrested shortly under different charges.
Unfortunately while some political parties have spoken up against such arrests, the same parties have demanded that stringent provisions be invoked against individuals from across the political aisle. This means that their opposition is not on grounds of ensuring basic democratic rights for citizens, including the right to express dissent, but, cynically, on grounds of political convenience.
It is this reality that makes it imperative that the police, in Tamil Nadu or elsewhere, exercise efforts to maintain a degree of independence. It is also imperative that the lower judiciary exercises a critical approach when such cases are brought before them. Given that more often than not, citizens are caught between the devil and the deep blue sea in terms of political options, an independent police force and judiciary are essential.