The Big Story: Tongue-tied
Early in 2016 came allegations that Zee News had misreported an event. Many accused the channel of distorted coverage a meeting at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal University, resulting in sedition cases being filed against three students. That’s also how the year is ending. A first information report filed in West Bengal by a man named Chiranjeet Das claims that the channel misreported the Dhulagarh communal violence that took place between December 12 and December 14 in Howrah district of West Bengal.
The main intent of the complainant, it seems, is to chill free expression, given that the case has been registered under section 153A of the Indian Penal Code, which penalises speech “promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion, race, place of birth, residence, language, etc., and doing acts prejudicial to maintenance of harmony”.
By penalising speech itself, section 153A strikes at the very heart of democracy. It has been used to smother speech in several previous instances too. In 2016, academic Ashis Nandy was forced to tender an unconditional apology after he was charged under section 153A for hurting the sentiments of Gujaratis. In 2015, the Uttar Pradesh police charged a student with 153A for making derogatory references against Uttar Pradesh Urban Development minister Azam Khan. In 2014, a resident of Goa was booked under 153A for simply writing against Prime Minister Narendra Modi on social media. That year, Yogesh Master, a Kannada author, was booked under 153A for hurting the sentiments of “Brahmins and Lingayats”. In 2007, section 153A was used to charge academic James Laine for writing a book on Shivaji.
Clearly, there is little logic to the use of section 153 beyond powerful forces wanting to curb free speech. But even as this law is used frequently to harass honest thought and enquiry, its use in cases of riots and communal violence has seen very few convictions. The most famous case that illustrates the ineffectiveness of section 153 is when it failed to convict Shiv Sena leader Bal Thackeray. This, in spite, of the fact that Thackeray’s writings were seen by the official Srikrishna Commission as a trigger for the communal violence that wracked Mumbai in 1992 and 1993, leaving around 900 people dead. In Thackeray’s case, the authorities simply looked the other way and far from prosecuting him, the Maharashtra government in the end awarded him a state funeral.
In 1993, when writer Nancy Adajania was charged with section 153 for allegedly insulting Shivaji, Justice M Saldanah of the Bombay High Court remarked that in cases of purported hate speech, the police should “carefully evaluate the material before embarking on action, more so when it is directed against writers and journalists”.
As is clear from its use – and lack of in certain cases – section 153 is failing in its role in preventing hate speech. In fact, the very concept of prosecuting speech is a flawed one in a modern democracy and should be done away.
The Big Scroll
A short history of the blasphemy law used against Wendy Doniger.
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Yearning for equality, striving for power: Ajaz Ashraf goes inside the little-known world of the Bahujan Samaj Party.
“Given the link between power and the quest for social transformation, the Bahujan Samaj Party has structured itself like an army that is engaged in a perpetual thrum of activity, whether an election is five years away or just a month or two away, as is the case in Uttar Pradesh.
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