Freedom of expression after Pulwama attack: Democracy can nurture both dissent and national security

[dropcap]F[/dropcap]ORTY-NINE CRPF personnel were killed in Pulwama, Kashmir last week. The nation is still recovering from this most destructive attack on its integrity since the 26/11 Mumbai siege. A phenomenon that resurfaces in most toxic forms after such attacks is the vile clashes between groups using the unfortunate incident as a fuel to propel the agenda of nationalist politics of “us vs. them”, and those “others” who hold views that differ from these groups.

Any criticism of the government agencies is taken as an attack on the nation and subsequently, as a form of support to the terrorists and to the “enemy nation”. In the fallout, one’s identity becomes enough of a criterion to judge one’s allegiances. This is explosive.

Among social media loudmouths, mob harassment, and threats of violence, some cases stand out. They stand out because unlike the verbal clashes or the harassment that happened on social media and on ground in some towns, these cases are instances of institutional action on the civilians of the country for harbouring opinions that deviate from the masses.

The Aligarh Muslim University — already in the middle of a boiling conflict over the Republic TV row — took notice of a tweet by one of its students and suspended him for the tweet that, in one line, mocked the armed forces and by doing so, supported the attackers.

Towards the south of the country, Bengaluru police arrested two students under charges of sedition for writing a post on Facebook that allegedly “taunted and ridiculed” the Army and hailed the attack. The police have launched another manhunt for a former resident of Bengaluru who is alleged to have “showed the Indian Army in bad taste and celebrated the dastardly attack”.

The UP Police also arrested four persons for making similar posts on social media websites. the BJP’s Uttar Pradesh media coordinator Rakesh Tripathi said, “It is very unfortunate that on one hand jawans are sacrificing their lives for the safety and security of the country, while on the other, there are some people who are eulogising Pakistan, while they are staying in India… under the government of Yogi Adityanath, there is no room for mercy for such people”.

The last line of Mr. Tripathi’s statement is important, and I claim, is against the constitutional spirit.

While it is to be made clear that what the people, who have been arrested, posted on their social media handles was condemnable and belittles the loss of life of our soldiers, and that no death must be ridiculed, and no violence justified (let alone glorified), what happens to the freedom to dissent through peaceful speech and expression – an important tenet of the constitution, in such instances is something we need to pause and contemplate. The constitutional validity of parts of IPC 124A – India’s sedition law and its impact on the discourse of our society needs to be examined and evaluated.

Although the word “sedition” does not appear anywhere in the Constitution or the IPC, like most of our archaic laws and codes, IPC 124A is the legacy of the British – Thomas Macaulay, to be specific. The clause was conceived as an offence in 1837 to control the increasing ‘rebellion’ by the Indian revolutionaries against the Company rulers. As the unrest and rebellion rose, in 1870, thirty three years after its conception, the law was added to the IPC.

It violates the fundamental rights and liberty guaranteed to an individual by the constitution of India. It is worth reflecting upon the following excerpts from Justice Desai Memorial Lecture given by Justice D Y Chandrachud last week:

“The Constitution fails when a cartoonist is jailed for sedition. When jail instead of bail is granted to a blogger who was critical of religious architecture, the constitution fails”…”’We’ in the preamble is an inclusive and ever expansive ‘we’”.

The result is a polarised nation where a citizen of Kashmir cannot express dissatisfaction towards the Indian state or the army, where we cannot be critical of the government for lapses in the security and intelligence, where security agencies cannot be questioned, and the ruling government cannot be held for its divisive political rhetoric and for using the deaths of our soldiers for political gains.

What cannot be ignored is that we are also fighting a war of ideas. Love towards one’s nation cannot be regulated; it cannot be manufactured or policed. By silencing individuals using laws of sedition, institutional action, and intimidation, and by denying these citizens of the Indian republic their right to free expression, we merely brush the most hostile and destructive ideas under the carpet instead of tackling them in the public sphere.

We prevent any criticism and debates that can and will although generate a lot of heat, but also shed some light. We prevent these ideas from being proven wrong and hateful through intellectual public discourse. Such an ideological destruction of dangerous ideas is sustainable and will go a long way. The impact of debate and dialogue is on thought; it is long lasting and reaches much deeper than regulation of speech. Policing will only silence the individual while the idea will continue to infect the society from within.

We have to address the more important question of what happens to freedom to dissent in the wake of national tragedies. How do we look at and interact with people who hold opinions that are critical of the Nation or of the Government? There is no freedom of speech without the freedom to dissent.