Opposition leaders on Saturday scorned at the Narendra Modi government for arresting people who allegedly pasted posters critical of the prime minister’s Covid vaccination policy.

The Congress demanded to know the legal basis for the action, while the Trinamool Congress wondered why the government was cracking down on citizens for asking a “perfectly valid question”.

The controversy erupted earlier this week, when posters mocking Modi for exporting vaccines without thinking about domestic demand were spotted in Delhi. “Modi ji humare bachon ka vaccine videsh kyon bhej diya? [Why did you send our children’s vaccines abroad?]” the posters read.

Authorities of all the districts of the Capital were alerted and as many as 17 first information reports were registered under relevant sections of the Prevention of Defacement of Property Act, Delhi Disaster Management Act and the Indian Penal Code. On Saturday, the police arrested multiple persons in connection with the matter.

The move has angered Modi’s opponents, who accused his government of stifling free speech.

Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, who is a staunch critic of the Centre, shared a virtual version of the poster and challenged authorities to arrest him too.

Congress leader Jairam Ramesh also made similar remarks, saying he was going to put up the poster in question on his compound wall. “Come and get me,” he wrote.

The Congress leader also wondered if the Delhi Police was “so jobless in the middle of a raging pandemic” that it was arresting people for pasting posters. “Putting up critical posters against PM is now a crime?” he added. “Is India run by the Modi Penal Code now?”

On Sunday, Ramesh indeed put up a poster outside his home, the Deccan Herald reported.

Former Finance Minister P Chidambaram mocked the government for having double standards. “Celebrate, India is a free country,” he wrote. “There is freedom of speech... Except, when you ask a question of the Honourable Prime Minister.”

The senior Congress leader accused the Delhi Police of working for government. “The poster asked a simple question of the PM: ‘why did you export the vaccines meant for our children?’” he said. “Even before the PM could answer, the loyal Delhi Police answered with ARREST.”

Congress spokesperson Abhishek Singhvi said he was shocked and stunned by the Delhi Police’s actions. “Under what authority, what law, what power can you arrest those who put up posters,” he asked, adding that most of these were ordinary people such as daily wage workers and auto drivers.

Singhvi compared Delhi to Uttar Pradesh, and said the situation “smacks of a lawless state gone amuck”.

Trinamool Congress leader Mahua Moitra said the posters had posed a perfectly valid question.

Aam Aadmi Party leader and Delhi Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia also tweeted in Hindi saying: “Who sold vaccines meant for our children to foreign countries for the sake of image building?”

India has exported nearly 6.6 crore vaccine doses to 95 countries under the “Vaccine Maitri” initiative. While the government maintains it was obliged to share doses under international agreements, critics feel the Centre, acting out of “arrogance” and “national pride”, ignored its responsibility toward vaccinating the country’s own population.

The fear and anger was compounded by a huge surge in Covid infections over the past month. As a second wave of the pandemic devastated the country, India’s pace of vaccination has remained slow, with several states flagging shortages and having to compete with each other for doses.