Worst charges against best minds


The latest instance of an intolerant and undemocratic ethos and milieu taking hold of the country is the filing of FIRs against 50 eminent citizens and intellectuals for writing a letter to Prime Minister Narenda Modi protesting against the lynching of Muslims and Dalits and demanding action by the government to curb these incidents. The order was passed by a chief judicial magistrate in Muzaffarpur in Bihar and the police have zealously implemented it. The people against whom the cases have been filed include historian Ramachandra Guha and film personalities Mani Ratnam, Aparna Sen and Adoor Gopalakrishnan. The charges include sedition, lowering the image of the country, belittling the prime minister’s performance and causing breach of peace. Ironically, the charges were filed on October 2, the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi whose creed was tolerance and respect for the views and opinions of others. 

Instead of dismissing the petition, admonishing the petitioner and issuing a warning to him for filing a flippant case and wasting the court’s time, the magistrate decided to slap some of the worst charges in the penal code against some of the best minds in the country. What prompted him to do that could only be the climate of intolerance of dissent and the tendency to dub all critics as anti-nationals and traitors. Criticising the government and its agencies, and leaders, their decisions and actions has become a seditious crime in the country. Charges of sedition have been slapped on people for criticising the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill and the army’s actions in Kashmir. Warnings and threats are being issued to those who hold different views, and dissenters are being told to leave the country. 

The concern over the denial of citizens’ rights and the failure of the government to protect them is genuine and legitimate. In the past also, eminent persons have written letters to PM Modi expressing their concern over the shrinking space for freedom and reminding him of his responsibility to protect the citizens’ rights. There is no sign of such concerns having been taken seriously, and instead, those who raise such issues are harassed and persecuted. The government and the BJP claim the legacy of Gandhiji, and the PM proclaims India’s high democratic credentials to the world. These claims would only sound hollow and hypocritical when criticism is disapproved and even penalised. Judiciary is the protector of the constitutional rights of citizens. But unfortunately, it is seen reneging on its responsibility, as the Muzaffarpur magistrate’s order has shown. The Supreme Court has termed lynching a crime, but a lower court has made its criticism a bigger crime.


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