Because of the very nature of his job, Bharatiya Janata Party President Amit Shah finds it hard to stick to a stand. One day he might be out promising the people of Assam that a BJP government would not even let a bird cross over the border, the next day he might be appreciating the visit of a Pakistani investigative team to India after terrorists from across the border attacked an Air Force base in Pathankot. Among the many things the BJP president can be accused of, holding on to principled positions is not one of them.
Which it makes it par for course that Shah would speak up in defence of Yoga guru Baba Ramdev, even after the latter is speaking about beheading lakhs of people. On Sunday, Ramdev told a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh rally in Rohtak that only India's laws prevent him from cutting the heads off of all those who refuse to chant Bharat Mata ki jai.
"If somebody stands up and speaks like this, that gives strength to hooligans," Ramdev said. "We respect this country’s law and Constitution, otherwise if anybody disrespects Bharat Mata, we have the capability of beheading not one but thousands and lakhs."
The comments, with their veiled threat of violence that is only being held at bay by the legal system, prompted plenty of outrage. A senior Congress leader in Haryana even registered a police complaint and asked for a case to be filed against the godman.
Shah, however, remained unfazed.
First, he told The Hindu that the "whole country" – specifically using "rashtra" a term with several connotations – is with the BJP on the nationalism debate, failing to explain what that meant for all of those people who refuse to chant Bharat Mata ki jai. Then, when asked about Ramdev, he reportedly told a TV channel: "Baba Ramdev is not a member of the BJP. However, I want to know from those who talk of free speech, does it not apply to Baba Ramdev."
It should be wonderful to hear that the president of one of the country's largest political parties is championing the cause of free speech, except you don't even have to go back two days to expose the hollowness of this stand.
On April 4, the BJP's own Information Technology cell chief Arvind Gupta announced that the party had filed a case against a journalist for using photoshop to joke about Prime Minister Narendra Modi's closeness to the Saudi royal family.
Needless to say, the BJP has yet to file a case against the government's Press Information Bureau for similarly morphing pictures of the prime minister or against a number of news channels for using doctored videos of Jawaharlal Nehru University students allegedly shouting seditious slogans.
JNU & Subramanian Swamy
The JNU case is a good example of an instance when Shah not only did not speak up for the right to free expression, he used it as a taunt at rallies around the country, giving himself the power to define what counts as free speech and what doesn't.
But there is an even more pertinent case that exposes Shah's lack of free speech principles and even counts as a tacit encouragement for others to count Ramdev's comments as hate speech.
Fellow BJP leader Subramanian Swamy, who frequently gets accused of hate speech and often falls back on the free speech argument, decided to do something about it. Swamy petitioned the Supreme Court challenging the constitutionality of sections of the Indian Penal Code that are connected to hate speech, saying these are being used to "penalize people for expressing their views."
Instead of backing Swamy's move, the BJP-ruled Centre objected to his petition and disagreed with him, insisting that "people can not be allowed to spread hatred towards any community or class in the name of freedom of speech and expression as it would result in public disorder and riots".
If the BJP and the Centre believes "spreading hatred" should be illegal, how does the veiled threat of beheading lakhs just for not saying something not count as a crime?