On Wednesday, the Mumbai Police arrested a 38-year-old homoeopathic doctor, Sunil Kumar Nishad, after a complaint that he had made derogatory remarks about the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Bhopal Lok Sabha candidate Pragya Singh Thakur, as well as posting “anti-Hindu” and “anti-Brahminical” on his Facebook page.
A post on Nishad’s Facebook page points out that Thakur is an accused in cases of murder and terror. This is a factually correct claim. Thakur is being tried for the 2008 bombings in Malegaon, where six people were killed and at least a 100 injured.
This egregious violation of the right to free speech in Bharatiya Janata Party-ruled Maharashtra comes just days after a similar incident in West Bengal, where a BJP worker, Priyanka Sharma, was arrested for sharing a photoshopped image of Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee on social media. Because she is a member of the ruling party, Sharma’s arrest created a media storm. Her case leapfrogged the regular judicial system and within three days, the Supreme Court itself reacted, granting her bail.
However, the Mamata meme controversy played no role in systemically strengthening free speech in India. Even as Sharma’s case was being splashed across the media and being heard in the Supreme Court, the Mumbai Police was searching for Nishad in order to arrest him. The complainant has stated that the “police were very cooperative” when it came to initiating action against Nishad.
Arrests and jail time for speech are disappointingly common in India. Just on May 5, a 23-year old man was arrested for sharing a photoshopped photo of Narendra Modi – the same act that Priyanka Sharma committed. In 2017, an Uttar Pradesh teenager, Zakir Tyagi was arrested for a social media post criticising government policy and spent 42 days in prison for it.
Clearly, something is wanting when it comes to India’s commitment to the right of free expression. While the Supreme Court’s quick intervention in the case of Priyanka Sharma is welcome, it is by far the exception. In most other cases, where there is little attention, the police and the judicial system more often than not move to muzzle speech, acting on dominant social and political currents.
It is apparent that a systemic solution is needed, one that can only be provided by overhauling India’s free speech laws. India’s politicians and judges need to take a long, hard look at laws such as blasphemy and defamation.
In some cases, sustained pressure has produced results. In 2015, the Supreme Court struck down draconian Section 66A of the Information Technology Act which curtailed the right to free speech. The Congress in its manifesto for the 2019 general election has promised to remove criminal defamation and sedition from India’s lawbooks.
In spite of this, there are still strong sections within India that seek to restrict speech. The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, for example, has promised to actually make India’s sedition law even stronger than it was under the British Raj.
Till India’s laws are revised to protect the right to free speech, a black mark will remain against Indian democracy.