Silencing the critics
Amid outcries against jailing of journalist Kishorechandra Wangkhem under the National Security Act and attempts to drive home the message that critics speak as and when some policy matters are not to the satisfaction of the public, arrest of Manipur Students’ Association Delhi (MSAD) advisor Thokchom Veewon on Friday and reports about the student activist likely to be slapped with sedition charge substantiates the people’s apprehension that the establishment will not hesitate to invoke the harshest laws of the land to tackle dissension. Though there has been a tendency of slapping sedition charges to deal with the government detractors, past as well as recent incidents suggest that one can evade facing similar charges in case he/she criticises the establishment or makes references in the most composed manner regardless of such remarks amounting to incitement. At the height of the anti-CAB agitation, the commonality among opposition leaders, prominent citizens and leaders of civil societies was that all of them tongue lashed the government, cautioned that the mass movement might head to unpredictable directions and called for sustaining the agitation. For instance, Dr Meinya, in an apparent last ditch effort to draw the Centre’s attention, made mention about Manipur’s pre-merger status in the last session of the Lok Sabha, which could be deduced as cautioning the government about possible ramification in case the Bill is passed by the Parliament. Neither the Parliamentarian nor those who spearheaded the anti-CAB protests and made disparaging remarks against the government are likely to face any legal action. Growing intolerance against public dissent could also be comprehended from Assamese scholar Hiren Gohain, peasant rights activist Akhil Gogoi and journalist Manjit Mahanta being arrested and slapped with sedition charges for remarks made against the proposed citizenship law.
Back in September 2012 too, cartoonist Aseem Trivedi turned himself in to police in Mumbai as he learnt of imminent arrest after his cartoons included one depicting the parliament building as a lavatory buzzing with flies. In some recent cases, Sudha Bharadwaj, Gautam Navlakha, Varavara Rao, Vernon Gonsalves and Arun Ferreira of Maharashtra were arrested in August 2018 and slapped with sedition charges for fighting for the rights of tribal people that the government equated to endorsing Naxalism movement. All these arrests, testify that the government seeks to silence political dissent by accusing dissenters of promoting disaffection. It is precisely to prevent such a heavy-handed response to strident political criticism that courts have often pointed out that the essential ingredient of any offence of sedition is an imminent threat to public order. Ironically, the courts’ observation and prescription is yet to have takers as the political class, especially those holding the reins of power seem to be equally determined to exploit the existing laws to their advantage and interpret anti-establishment comments as an excuse for accusing someone of planning to wage war or promote disaffection against the government. Therefore, Veewon’s arrest is a classic case that the establishment will cheerfully endorse when commended but would deal with an iron hand in case those who are not amused with the political class do not restrain themselves. As NESO pointed out in a condemnation note on Saturday that Veewon was arrested from his rental home in South Delhi on sedition charges in the aftermath of lashing out at the government in protest against Kishorechandra’s arrest under NSA and the contentious Citizenship (Amendment) Bill 2016 and leading protests in Delhi, it wouldn’t be naïve to assume that the MSAD advisor has been pulled up to settle a score.