‘Dissent is not sedition’

The sedition case against 49 writers, artists and filmmakers has rattled Bengaluru. Police eventually withdrew the case, but why did they slap it in the first place?

The Bihar police have closed the sedition case filed against 49 artists, writers and filmmakers.

The case was filed in response to an open letter they wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi in July, asking that mob lynchings be stopped immediately. The artistic community in Bengaluru is shocked at how such a case was slapped, with no due diligence, against some of India’s most distinguished names.

What July 23 letter said

The July 23 letter was signed, among others, by filmmakers Shyam Bengal, Adoor Golpalakrishnan, Aparna Sen, Mani Ratnam and Anurag Kashyap, writers Ashish Nandy, Partha Chatterjee and Ramachandra Guha, and singer Shubha Mudgal.

The letter read: “The lynching of Muslims, Dalits and other minorities must be stopped immediately. We were shocked to learn from the NCRB (National Crime Records Bureau) reports that there have been no less than 840 instances of atrocities against Dalits in the year 2016, and a definite decline in the percentage of convictions.” (The letter goes on to provide more statistics.)

The signatories urge the government to take action against the perpetrators: “We strongly feel that such offences should be declared non-bailable and that exemplary punishment should be meted out swiftly and surely. If life imprisonment without parole can be the sentence in cases of murder, why not for lynchings, which are even more heinous? No citizen should have to live in fear in his/her own country!” They also talk about how these acts go against the very spirit of democracy.  

Reacting to the closure of the sensational case, people in the arts in Bengaluru wonder why it was even filed in the first place.

Here is what the community is saying.

Nothing anti-national about letter
Actor H G Dattatreya, who recently essayed a role in 'Mission Mangal,' found it meaningless. "There must be dissenting voices in a democracy. None of the signatories have made any anti-national or anti-people statement. Then why was such a strong charge made against them?" he says.  

Shows things going wrong
Popular theatre personality Arundhati Raja, terms the episode "a ridiculous fiasco". She says: "I’m not aware of the politics behind it all but the FIR has become a symbol of the many things that are going wrong. The top leadership hasn’t even said anything and this silence is unsettling. In a way, it’s good that there were some big names on the letter, I’m not sure what would’ve happened if an FIR was filed by ordinary people." 

Attempt to silence intellectuals
Dr Nataraj Huliyar, well-known Kannada writer, says the FIR is a clear indication that a totalitarian regime is consolidating. "It was an attempt to silence independent intellectuals in the country," he says.

Speaking out is a right
Kannada film director B Suresha, one of the signatories to the letter, says, "If a citizen making a point is dubbed seditious, then the whole idea of the country falls apart. All the letter asked was that symbols like cows and chants like Jai Shree Ram not be invoked to mob lynch someone. There must be a strong policy on this," he says. 

Speak out and go to jail?
Malayalam actor Jinu Joseph wonders about the sad state of the judiciary. "The court directed the police to file an FIR. Doesn't that tell you a lot about the judiciary? If you say anything against the ruling government they throw you in jail?" wonders Jinu.

We live in testing times
Art historian Suresh Jayaram feels the country is going through a tough phase. "We are living in testing and dangerous times, where our freedom of speech is under threat. There’s a lot of self-censorship going on. People who have written the letter are some of the most distinguished cultural personalities the country has produced. We wouldn't be where we are without their contributions. As an artist and art historian, I think freedom of speech is our fundamental right and that must be protected."

Takes courage to speak out
Filmmaker Faraz Arif Ansari says it takes tremendous courage today to exercise freedom of expression — a right given to us by our very own Constitution. "Lynching in India is real. Artists showing concern for other fellow citizens is also real. It has to be respected. There is no smoke without fire. And this fire has been burning for a long, long time now," says Faraz.

Petitioner’s intentions wrong
Actor Samyukta Horanad suspects the petitioner had ‘wrong intentions’. “Booking a case like this creates chaos. People make big accusations without the right information. I am glad the row has ended," she says.

PM should respond to letter
Congress MP Dr L Hanumanthaiah feels the case was booked with no understanding."If a citizen writes a letter on any matter to the government, it shouldn’t be considered an offence. This letter was written by eminent personalities, many of whom have received awards from the government. The prime minister should take their letter seriously and examine the problems they talk about. Instead, an FIR was filed. It was a senseless act."

Dissent is not sedition
Vivek Shanbhag, writer of novels such as Ghachar Ghochar, says it is time to think why incidents that hadn’t happened since the Emergency are happening now.He says: “Accountability of people in power must be questioned in democracy. It is our right and can't be seen as sedition. It is not about the closure of this specific case. It is the general atmosphere and attitude of the state that is alarming." 

Law provides protection
Filmmaker M G Sathya recalls the days of the Emergency when dissidents were picked off the streets on false charges. He says: "Today, it is going according to the legal procedures. I can write a letter to Modi, or Yediyurappa or Kumaraswamy and they can’t do anything because I am protected by the law. I’ve been living a secure and fearless life and that’s what the law does-- make a society fearless. Even the sedition case was filed within the legal framework, and was eventually dismissed as a malicious attempt to create unrest. That is the beauty of the law."

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