Decision to pardon journalist welcome

The Odisha government’s decision to pardon Delhi-based journalist and commentator Abhijit Iyer-Mitra and to withdraw the cases against him is welcome, but his experience will serve as a reminder of how a determined State can mistreat and harass a citizen for the flimsiest of reasons. Iyer-Mitra was arrested by the Odisha police in October and has since then languished in a jail in Bhubaneswar. It was yet another case of overreaction to a comment and vindictive pursuit of an individual by the State. In a video posted on Twitter, he had made some comments on the Sun temple in Konark which were considered to be derogatory. But Iyer-Mitra explained that they were not made seriously but were only satirical comments. He also made some comments about the state as such, the Puri Jagannath temple and some ruling party legislators. These, too, provided more grounds for action against him. 

Some of the comments may have been in poor taste and uninformed. But poor taste and ignorance are not crimes that call for prosecution. The state police, however, brought serious charges against him on their basis. Two stringent sections of the penal code relating to promoting enmity between different religious groups were invoked. It is a stretch to claim that his comments were meant to outrage religious sentiments or directed against the Odia people. Hurt feelings have become an excuse for attacks on writers, artists and anyone who expresses opinions which are not liked by one group or another. The State is often on the side of those who attack the freedom of expression of individuals, instead of protecting it. The Odisha government took the initiative to punish a person for exercising that freedom and sought to persecute him under draconian provisions of the law. 

Unfortunately, the Supreme Court, which has always protected citizens’ rights, did not extend its support to Iyer-Mitra and denied him bail. It even unfairly observed that he would be “safer in jail’’. He was pardoned by the state assembly after he apologised for his comments, but the government did not relent. It has now pardoned him after he petitioned again, certainly not because it has realised its mistake but because it thinks it has made its point. That point is that the State has the power to take away your rights and punish you if it does not like you or your words and even the law may not always help you. That is not a democratic point and should worry all those who value their rights, and those of others. Iyer-Mitra himself -- a right-winger who revelled in ridiculing liberals, attacking journalists and activists who spoke up for freedom of speech and wishing hell upon them – has hopefully learnt the lesson.

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Decision to pardon journalist welcome

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