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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 10, New Delhi, February 20, 2021

Disha Ravi‘s Arrest: Foreboding of Authoritarian Tide | Vijay Kumar

Saturday 20 February 2021

The arbitrary arrest of Disha Ravi, young lady and an Environmental activist from her residence in Bengaluru on February 14 on trumped up charge and in utter violation of procedure prescribed under the Code of Criminal Procedure and the mandate of Article 22 of the Constitution marks the sharp descent of Indian democracy into authoritarian regime. The democratic credential of Modi Government was always in short-supply, but arrest of 22 years young lady for extending support to on-going farmer’s agitation, which was her fundamental right, through the handle of Toolkit, the authoritarian streak, which was operating covertly, has brazen-facedly come out in the open. The arrest of Disha Ravi and the issuance of non-bailable warrant against 29 years old Mumbai based woman Advocate Nikita Jacob, who has passion for advocating the human rights and environmental issues, and her Maharashtra based associate Shantanu Muluk (both of them have been granted interim transit bail by the Bombay High Court) and slapping of the charge of sedition under Section 124-A of I.P.C. have grave implication for democracy, rule of law and constitutionalism.

The sharing of ideas and concerns through Emails, Twitters, Whatsapps and numerous other technological handles has become common, particularly among young generation. Supporting the farmer’s protests by expressing her opinion and sharing it with her group does not amount to committing any wrong, much less a criminal offence of Sedition. Articulating the political preferences and mobilizing it through the latest technological tool is perfectly legitimate and the high-handed manner of arrest only shows the repressive character of Modi government and its contempt and disdain for dissent. The manner of arrest of Disha Ravi without securing the transit remand from the Bengaluru court and denying her the counsel of her choice during her production before Duty Magistrate in Delhi on Sunday have the chilling effect and thus motivated by the machination of threat and intimidation to young people by stifling their independent thinking and right to oppose the government through the exercise of rights to free speech and expression. The comment of Disha Ravi was innocuous and, therefore, slapping of charge of Sedition lacks as much in proportion and reality as in legality and, indeed constitutionality.

 Criminalizing of dissent articulated through Toolkit, however, is ironical as the hideous practice of vilifying others through hate speech started by the troll army of the BJP. When it started backfiring on it, the Government became panicky and started criminalizing the dissent. The farmer’s agitation which is going on for more than two and a half months has unnerved the Government and slapping the charge of sedition on students, activists, media persons and even intellectuals speaks volume of the government gripped by paranoia. Here, the account of the role of the technological tools in mobilizing public opinion recounted by Barrack Obama in his recent autobiography “The Promised Land” becomes relevant. In 2008 Presidential election, the Democratic primary contest after early elimination of other candidates, including the present President Joe Biden, went to the wire between Hillary Clinton, former first lady and Barrack Obama. Hillary Clinton was canvassing in traditional manner, whereas Obama relied on the new technology and used digital networks extensively and eventually succeeded in securing the Democratic nomination for the President post against the Republican John McCain, who had smooth sailing in winning his party nomination. What assumes significance is the following comment made by Obama in respect of using digital networks in the era of Donald Trump :

“What I couldn’t fully appreciate yet was just how malleable this technology would prove to be; how quickly it would be absorbed by commercial interests and wielded by entrenched powers; how readily it could be used not to unify people but to distract or divide them; and how one day many of the same tools that had put me in the White House would be deployed in opposition to everything I stood for.” (page 131)

The reflection of Obama in the context of post-truth and demagoguery of Trump is equally apposite in India where troll army of BJP has been using digital tools to spread hate and thereby polarize the social fabric.

The internationalization of the farmer’s agitation and the supports it has been receiving from the celebrities, students and activists have rattled Modi government which does not respect independent and creative thinking. As democracy is sustained through what Prof. Amratya Sen terms “Dialogue, Debate and Deliberation”, freedom of speech and expression assumes central importance. The wanton attack on freedom of speech and expression will amount to attack on democracy.

The young persons in the country are in ferment. The attempt to polarize the young minds has fateful implications for deliberative democracy. The young people are by nature rebellious and criminalizing their non-confirmist act would subvert the democracy. Here, the comparison with another era from U.S. would be in order. When President Lyndon Johnson started the Vietnam war, the students all over the US protested. One of the students, who was in the forefront of protest against the war, was Bill Clinton. When Bill Clinton was nominated for the presidential election in 1992 by the Democrats against Bush Sr., it was canvassed, rather aggressively, by the Republican Party that Clinton had opposed the Vietnam was. This aggressive campaign was rejected by a resounding verdict by the US electorate, who punished Bush Sr. for his misadventure in Iraq.

Given the existence of democracy, the freedom of speech and expression has critical relevance. The exceptions carved out in Article 19(2) of the Constitution do not include sedition. In fact, the constitutional validity of the draconian provision of Section 124(A) was upheld by the Supreme Court in 1962 in Kedarnath Singh Versus State of Bihar, only after reading it down and making it subject to the condition that would entail incitement to violence. In Balwant Singh’s case, the accused was charged with sedition because he raised the slogan “Khalistan Zindabad” at the time of assassination of Smt. Indira Gandhi. The Supreme Court, again, held in as unequivocal terms as could be articulated that mere utterance without any overt act would not amount to committing the offence of sedition. However, in Disha Ravi’s case, she did not utter anything which can even remotely have any nexus to incitement to violence. The result is a complete subversion of the right to freedom of speech and expression.

Unlike First Amendment of the American Constitution, Article 19(1)(a) does not guarantee the right to free speech and expression in absolute terms. But the Supreme Court, right from its inception in the Ramesh Thapar case (1950) till its last liberal judgment in Shreya Singhal (2015), interpreted Article 19(1)(a) broadly in tune with liberalism. Justice Rohinton Nariman, while striking down Section 66(A) of the Information and Technology Act, copiously referred to all the leading judgments of the US Supreme Court and emphasized on the critical significance of right to freedom of speech and expression in a constitutional democracy.

It is heartening that almost all the English dailies in their editorial have condemned the arrest of Disha Ravi in unequivocal terms. After waging the war against the farmers, the arrest of young girl will further alienate the youth and even climate activists in view of puerile attack by MEA on Greta Thunberg. The illegal arrest will, a la farmer’s agitation, will gain international traction and would lead to global solidarity among the activists, environmentalists and students. At stake is the rights guaranteed under the Constitution and all the protesters are reclaiming the democratic space through assertion of their rights and thus trying hard to rescue the democracy from authoritarian onslaught.

The battle line is drawn and it is going to be contest between DAVID vs. GOLIATH. Along with the farmers, students and social activists on one side are pitted against the draconian power of Modi government massive resources of the corporate groups. On February 15, ‘The Guardian’ in its editorial commented on on-going protest in different parts of the world from Russia to Hong Kong to India and Belarus and made following pertinent conclusion :

The glaring difference between this wave of protest and that seen a decade ago is that, for the most part, activists are not seeking greater freedom but trying to defend what space they have against increasing encroachment as the authoritarian tide has risen around the world. Ten years on, almost all the Arab spring’s uprisings have ended in war or even more punitive and ruthless rule. Unscrupulous governments have exploited the pandemic to tighten controls further.

Where once campaigners sought a new realm of liberty after decades of autocracy, many of them would now be elated if they could restore what they had relatively recently. They protest less in hope than from a sense that they have little other option. When they hand on their ideas and techniques, they are not only recognising a common cause, but giving meaning and life to their own struggles even as they are crushed. In keeping the flame of resistance alive, they hope that somewhere, sometime, it will light the way to new political possibilities worldwide

As liberal space is shrinking alarmingly and constitutionally guaranteed rights are under full-frontal assault by the ruling dispensation of the day, young activists are compelled to reclaim democratic space in peaceful manner through digital networks and that requires global human solidarity through vigorous public action.

(Author: Vijay Kumar is Advocate, Supreme Court of India)

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