The Big Story: Trampling free speech
In his last speech in Parliament in March before he resigned his Lok Sabha seat and took over as Uttar Pradesh chief minister, Yogi Adityanath promised that “many things would be shut down” in the state after he assumed charge. Given the developments in the last few days, it is clear that the warning was not just to political opponents but also to the very idea of freedom of speech and expression.
On Sunday evening, the Uttar Pradesh police detained at least 41 Dalit activists on board the Sabarmati Express at Jhansi to prevent them from reaching Lucknow and presenting a 125-kg soap to Adityanath. This was a protest planned to condemn the insult meted out to Dalits in Manipur Deenapatti village in May, when they were given soaps and shampoos by the administration to clean themselves before the chief minister’s visit.
On Monday, the UP police took an even more drastic step in its attempt to muzzle the civil society. Eight Dalit activists were arrested from the UP Press Club in Lucknow, where they wanted to highlight the atrocities against Dalits in the state and condemn the Sunday arrests. Thirty one other activists of the Bundelkhand Dalit Adhikar Manch and the Dynamic Action Group were also detained to stall the press conference.
The narrative used to implement the arrest is a chilling reminder of how easily an authoritarian state could trample on fundamental rights. According to news reports, the police filed cases under Section 151 of the Criminal Procedure Code. The provision is primarily used to prevent people from committing cognisable offences. The police claimed the activists were “planning” to march towards the chief minister’s office, for which they did not have permission.
But it is to be noted that the police did not even wait for the activists to emerge out of the press conference to detain them. Eight of them were picked up from the press club even before they could speak to the media. That holding a press conference inside the UP press club could even be deemed a wrongful act by the police is a clear indication of the mood of the government, which is sending a strong signal that it will brook no dissent.
While this was done to people protesting, those trying to uphold the law have been shown that they will be acted against if they went after groups seen favourable to the ruling party. Last week, a woman IPS officer, Deputy Superintendents of Police Shreshtha Thakur was transferred after a video of her refusing to give in to the demands of local BJP leaders over the imposition of fine on a BJP worker went viral on social media.
The arrest and transfer have profound implications for media freedom in Uttar Pradesh. By invading a space such as the press club, the media’s right to report without censorship is being trampled on. If the government is allowed to use provisions of preventive detention to stop people from meeting the press, it automatically becomes a case of indirect censorship where the media is being told what was legal to report and what cannot be allowed. By transferring a police officer for doing her job, the government is sending a clear message to others whose job is to uphold the law of the land.
The Big Scroll
- Khabar Lahariya spoke to Dalits in Banda about the incident in a village in Kushinagar, where Dalits were asked to clean themselves up before Chief Minister Adityanath’s visit in May.
- In the Indian Express, Nobel laureate Amartya Sen warns against the decimation of the secular fabric of the nation.
- In The Hindu, former union minister Kapil Sibal stresses on the importance of criticising the government despite the danger of being called an “anti-national”.
- In the Mint, Ranjith Singh Kalha writes on why India should firmly resist Chinese arm-twisting in the recent border dispute near Sikkim.
MK Bhadrakumar points out that India must re-evaluate its ties with Israel keeping the current political developments in West Asia.
“Why does Israel matter? Primarily, India seized the window of opportunity – as China too did at one point before the window slammed shut – to use Israel to siphon US military technology, which the Americans were not in a position to transfer directly. The relationship flourished both because the Israelis were street-smart and because the Americans simply looked away. Today, it has grown into a sturdy tree and is bearing fruit.”