“Where does Constitution say that people cannot protest in a democracy…,” asked Additional Sessions Judge Kamini Lau to the police while hearing a bail petition in a Delhi court. In a related development, the Supreme Court slammed the government for invoking section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code for suspending internet in Jammu and Kashmir. Taken together, these observations of Judges from a lower court to the highest court highlight the essence of democracy: freedom of speech; and liberty for peaceful protests and dissent.
But BJP leaders and its ministers treat such observations with contempt and derision. Their voices get shriller and language more poisonous in the wake of various protests rocking the length and breadth of the country. The BJP West Bengal chief and MP, Dilip Ghosh, recently hailed the State governments run by his party for killing protesters “like dogs”. Another BJP leader Raghuraj Singh from Uttar Pradesh, in an appalling statement, said that those raising slogans against Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath “will be buried alive.” According to some reports, there had been 700 per cent rise in inflammatory speeches in the recent past, mostly by saffron brigade, against people who take to street to protest.
Rabble-rousers get fodder for inflammatory speeches from their own leaders. When the Prime Minister says from a public platform that one “can easily make out who is spreading violence by the clothes they wear", his supporters and followers get the cue and go overboard to unleash an avalanche of abusive words against their opponents. When wrong signals are sent out from the top, the consequences can be terrible. Arrogant and intolerant leadership of the ruling party at the Centre seems to be the genesis of the unprecedented crisis unfolding across the country.
The rule of law will remain an illusion if dissent is not accepted, instead countered with a heavy hand. Protests and airing of differing views are the essence of democratic governance. Unfortunately, those who speak against the government are put behind bars. Existing laws and rulings by various courts are thrown to winds to suppress opposition. The space for debate and discussion is shrinking, while instigators are gaining strength and roaming around freely. A new tactics is to label protesters as anti-nationals and urban Naxals; hate-mongers are hailed and garlanded. Gandhiji, who said that civil disobedience is a sacred duty when the State becomes lawless, might be turning in his grave when he sees that human rights activists are thrown into dingy cells in jails. The British were known for invoking sedition charges against those who spoke or acted against the former. History seems to repeat when such stringent sections are invoked against critics of the government in independent India. Ironically, those making highly provocative statements go unpunished as they are the lackeys of the government.
The last word should go to Mahatma Gandhi who said: Liberty and democracy become unholy when their (rulers) hands are dyed red with innocent blood. When protesters and dissenters are warned with ‘shooting like dogs’ and ‘buried alive’ threats, democracy is becoming unholy in this largest democratic country.(Published on 20th January 2020, Volume XXXII, Issue 04)