The Big Story: Pyongyang plot
What do North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un and Prime Minister Narendra Modi have in common? Absolutely nothing at all. Twenty two traders in Kanpur found out the hard way. On Thursday, they were booked for putting up posters which said that just as Kim Jong-un wanted to destroy the world, Modi wanted to destroy Indian business. The Korean leader wanted to do it with nuclear weapons, the Indian prime minister with demonetisation. It turned out to be an explosive analogy, earning the traders a First Information Report filed by the zealous Uttar Pradesh police, which charged them with “wantonly giving provocation to someone intending or knowing that it is likely to cause riots” and “making a statement conducting public mischief”. The traders have been booked under Section 153, which could land them in jail for six months even if no riot took place, and under Section 505, a non-bailable offence.
In Uttar Pradesh, but also in other parts of the country, Indians may criticise government policies or the ruling administration at their own peril. On October 1, the police lodged an FIR against two Dalit men in Shamli after a video of them abusing Modi and Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath went viral. The men had been incensed by stray cattle eating their crops. In April, an 18-year-old Muslim boy in Muzaffarnagar was arrested and jailed for 42 days because of some of his Facebook posts were deemed offensive. The posts included a picture of a police officer killed after he pursued a murder suspect in Dadri and a comment questioning the Uttarakhand High Court ruling that gave the Ganga the status of a living entity.
Indian laws curbing free speech and codifying offences such as sedition have frequently been dismissed as antiquated, draconian, the legacy of a repressive colonial state. But even these have been reinterpreted by successive court judgments, which note that a democracy needs a more liberal understanding of such laws. Besides, offences under Section 153, for instance, need prior sanction of the government before cognisance can be taken of them. It is not clear whether the Uttar Pradesh police went through the paces in each case or felt empowered by a general political climate that endorses bullying. The Bharatiya Janata Party government has done nothing to rein in the police, which suggests these actions have its tacit consent, at the very least.
What explains the extraordinarily thin skin of the ruling dispensation? The BJP enjoys a large majority at the Centre, has spread its footprints across various states and weathered the demonetisation storm to score a massive victory in Uttar Pradesh this year. Governments so comfortably ensconced, one would imagine, would be magnanimous to detractors, willing to absorb criticism and even respond to it constructively. But the BJP has been jumpy from the start, criminalising dissent or casting criticism of party ideology as an insult to the nation itself. Such a position suggests weakness, not strength.
The Big Scroll
Abhishek Dey speaks to aggrieved traders booked for putting up the posters.
Legal expert Laurence Liang discusses when free speech crosses over into seditious territory, and who can decide that it has.
- In the Indian Express, Gilles Verniers argues that in Gujarat, the BJP was able to occupy the space of a regional party while the Congress remained tied to the high command in Delhi.
- In the Hindu, Suhrith Parthasarathy on the right to read and be read.
- In the Telegraph, Manini Chatterjee on what the BJP’s defence of Jay Amit Shah says about the ruling party.
An 11-year-old girl in Jharkhand starved to death because she did not have an Aadhaar-linked ration card, reports Aarefa Johari:
“Santoshi Kumari, who came from an impoverished family in Simdega’s Karimati village, died on September 28. With no land, jobs or steady income, the family is eligible for subsidised rations under the National Food Security Act. However, according to local news reports and an independent fact-finding report by members of the non-profit Right to Food Campaign and NREGA Watch, the local ration dealer had refused to give Santoshi’s family their rations for the past six months on the grounds that their ration card had not been linked – or ‘seeded’, as its known in official language – to their Aadhaar number.”