It is a sign of the times that we live in that a court has to point out that protesting against a government policy and terrorist acts are two different things and not interchangeable to suit the whims and fancies of the government of the day. This observation by the Delhi High Court, while granting bail to three student activists taking part in protests in the national capital against the CAA towards the end of 2019, amounts to a clear indictment of the government as by no stretch of imagination can the two be considered to be the same thing and shows highhandedness on the part of the executive.
It is akin to the inability of a colour-blind person to differentiate between green and, for instance, red. Colour-blindness is a disability for which the patient is at no fault. But the government is indulging in abrasive behaviour. The court even cautioned against the tendency of agencies of the executive ‘crying wolf’.
The court declared that a protest is not a terrorist act as the right to protest is not only not outlawed in the country but protected as a constitutional right and that UAPA cannot be used frivolously to stifle dissent by citizens.
Court strictures such as these indicate the sorry state of affairs that prevails in the country as far as the liberties of citizens are concerned. Only a fortnight ago, the Supreme Court came down heavily against the government for treating criticism of government as sedition. Justice D Y Chandrachud, while considering the case against senior journalist Vinod Dua, expressed serious concern at the tendency to misuse the law relating to sedition to suppress freedom of expression.
The Modi government and its functionaries, particularly those handling domains that have connections with freedom of expression, have been encroaching upon the line that separates the government and the State and misinterpreting the laws to consider the criticism of the former as an offence against the State.
With ministers such as Ravi Shankar Prasad, who is not known to have any love lost for anyone with an opposite point of view, having access to unlimited powers to suppress criticism of the government, the implications of the disappearance of the line between government and the State are not difficult to imagine. Anything can be made out to be an act of terrorism or sedition and then prosecuted, particularly when it comes to the criticism of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The Modi ‘bhakts’ seem to suffer from a biological incapacity to accept that criticism is vital for the success of democracy. Unfortunately, these people apparently believe that the utility of democracy is only up to the point of voting for a new government and that it is a liability from then on. If their approach is taken to its logical conclusion, there is no need even for Parliament to meet and deliberate because once a government is formed, with its majority duly established, it is completely in control and can bring in any law that it desires. There is no need for any debate, or scope of criticism.
We, the people, have never surrendered our right to free speech and expression when we decided to form a sovereign republic. No government, howsoever authoritarian, can take away that right from us. And this has been the message coming out of various courts in recent times even as the assault on freedom of speech and expression as well as other liberties of the citizens by the government has been on the ascendance.
It is perhaps in the fitness of things here to recall what triggered the Kedar Nath case, the verdict of which the courts have been repeatedly citing in defence of freedom of speech. The landmark Supreme Court verdict overturned the conviction of one Kedar Nath Singh, a member of the Forward Communist Party of Bihar under the sedition laws for calling officers of CID and the government of the day by terming them as ‘dogs’ and ‘goondas’.
By comparison, those who are being slapped with sedition and terrorism charge by the Modi government haven’t made remarks even remotely as offensive as those made by Kedar Nath.
Views are personal