Big brother is watching


August 11, 2015

Self proclaimed protectors of faith, who kill to ‘avenge’ any perceived attack on their faith, are, in real terms, impinging on the democratic right to free expression

There are various types of policemen. There are some who will allow demonstrators to give vent to their grievances or feelings and be truly democratic about it. The demonstrators also disperse peacefully after vigorously exercising their lung power to plan out better strategies to get what they want. There are also some police officials who do not allow the demonstrators to exercise their democratic right to even express their opinion.

This section of police officials would do everything possible, many a time at the behest of their political masters, to put various kinds of curbs. Sometimes it could even be a ban on the movement of people. At other times it could also be so provocative that the demonstrators turn violent and be blamed for all the trouble. The purpose of such actions is to show that no opinion that is opposed to that of the government will be tolerated. Translated, it means that the basic right to freedom of expression, which is the pivot in a democracy, will be infringed upon.

Something akin to the latter category of police officials is what is currently playing out in India. The previous week when the hanging of an accused called Yakub Memon led to a serious debate on capital punishment, the nature of the discussion was not the same as it used to be in the past. Criticism was strident of all those who were, in principle, opposed to the existence of death penalty on the statute. It was, indeed, so shrill that the critics of capital punishment were even termed ‘anti-national’.

A section of those whose views were opposed to the critics of death penalty could well be holding on to their opinion. But, what really came as a surprise was the attitude of the government to freedom of expression, a fundamental right guaranteed under the constitution. It has issued show-cause notices to three television channels, big ones at that, questioning some content that was aired on the day Memon was hanged. The channels had aired opinion of an underworld don who believed that what was done to Memon was wrong because, in his opinion, Memon was innocent. Another was that of a lawyer of Memon who pointed out several countries which had abolished the death penalty.

But, the government thought it fit to issue notices under laws that object to ‘obscene, defamatory, deliberate, false and suggestive innuendos and half truths’; ‘likely to encourage or incite violence or anything against law and order or which promotes anti-national attitudes’ and ‘carrying contents which contains aspersions against the integrity of the President and judiciary’. Legal eagles, indeed many of them, will tell you that none of the content violated any of these clauses under the relevant laws.

In fact, the media made it amply clear that the highest court of the land, the Supreme Court, itself began its last sitting well past midnight, when a group of lawyers knocked on the doors of the Chief Justice, to give yet another hearing to prevent the hanging of a man who had funded the 1993 March serial bomb blasts which killed 287 persons and had, subsequently, helped India with evidence to nail Pakistan’s role in it. Interestingly, similar criticism was written about in the print media as well but no notice has been issued to any.

Such an approach could well have been described as the handiwork of an over-zealous officer who possibly wanted to impress his bosses. But, recent history shows a clear trend. Recall the ban imposed during the last one year on a documentary on rape, the ban in the western state of Maharashtra on eating of beef, the ban on some words being used in Bollywood movies, the ban on eggs in the free mid day meals to school students in the central state of Madhya Pradesh and the ban, since revoked, on a student body in the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Chennai. A few weeks ago, the entry to journalists in the federal Home Ministry was banned, ostensibly, to curb flow of information.

Add to this the manner in which a south Indian television network, with viewership of over 95mn, was and is being harassed with the threat of being denied security clearance. The ostensible reason is that its owners, hailing from a powerful political family, were allegedly involved in a money laundering case. The case is yet to go on trial and the accused are a long way from being even proved guilty. It is a different matter that the country’s top law officer thinks that there was no law to deny the

security clearance and the Law Ministry also endorses his view. But the powers-that-be in the federal government believe that such people can not be trusted with a licence.

All this indicates that the tolerance level of those in power is falling rather dramatically. It is not very different from some regional satraps in the mid-80s who imposed curbs on the media and paid a heavy price for it. Or, for that matter, even the most powerful politician in the country, Indira Gandhi, who had shown similar signs of intolerance towards criticism from the media. As prime minister, she paid the price for it, in fact, realising much later that the people really wanted a good welfare state with freedom of speech. Notices and threats to the media in a vibrant democracy do not serve the powers-that-be. It didn’t to a political giant like Indira Gandhi. Very unlikely it will to those who are far from being anywhere near a giant.

 

Power of a motley crew 

For the last couple of weeks, the country has been witness to the daily rigmarole of parliament getting disrupted because the main opposition party, the Congress, is stuck on its single point demand. That is seeking the resignation of the country’s External Affairs Minister, Sushma Swaraj, for her infamous letter to a British politician to help Lalit Modi (not related to Prime Minister Narendra Modi), the controversial organiser of cricket’s Indian Premier League, to get travel documents. The allegation against her is that there was conflict of interest because her husband and daughter were Lalit’s lawyers.

In more ways than one, it appears that the Congress is trying to settle scores with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) because the latter had blocked the functioning of parliament when in opposition pre-May 2014 elections. What is rather strange is that even when isolated in the opposition, the Congress with its 44 member is able to prevent a ruling party with a comfortable majority in the House of the People from functioning.

The BJP has even conceded the Congress’ demand on the amendments to the land acquisition legislation. Yet, it is not able to budge one inch because the opposition is in a majority in the upper house of parliament.

Lack of proper strategy in garnering support among its own allies as well as creating fissures in the opposition ranks is turning this session of parliament into a lame duck session. Clearly, it is not experience alone that matters. It’s a question of an approach to a problem and not standing on prestige when dealing with political opponents that matters.

 

Tailpiece

App-based cab aggregators have become some kind of a menace. Booking the cab and paying in advance has become easy. If all goes well, courtesy the driver, then you reach your location without the hassle of driving around to find a parking space in most urban centres in the country. But, if things begin to go wrong, these four wheelers could be worse than their country-cousins, the three wheelers or autorickshaws.

The latest experience being reported is that of a lady who booked a cab from the aggregator who has become famous across the world for reasons that none in the business would like. She paid up and waited and waited. After some calls, a lady took the call to say that she had taken the taxi and requested her to book another. The first lady had to pay an extra R100 (600bz approx) because of the fault of either the driver or the unknown lady passenger who took the taxi. She has a valid point when she asks who will reimburse her additional expenditure of R100.

Technology can be a great leveller but at whose cost? There are no answers yet in the taxi business, it seems.

[The views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Muscat Daily or Apex Press & Publishing]