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Why non-BJP Kerala, Maharashtra and Bengal are leading the assault on Freedom of Expression


May 10, 2019
Why non-BJP Kerala, Maharashtra and Bengal are leading the assault on FoE

Why are specifically non-BJP regimes getting so tyrannical and desperate to gag the media and social media critical of them?

Kerala is the Rishabh Pant of Indian states. Just like the much-hyped Indian wicketkeeper-batsman, it keeps disappointing again and again.

India’s Left-‘liberal’ mainstream media and intellectuals try their best to project Kerala as the ‘model’ state run by a ‘benign’ leftist government. In the early days of the COVID-19 outbreak, they toasted the ‘Kerala model’ of dealing with the pandemic, which soon blew up in their faces. The state is now teetering on the threshold of being the most vulnerable coronavirus hotspot.

And while they keep throwing terms like “fascist” and “autocratic” at the BJP, the Kerala government has come out with an ordinance that snugly fits into those words.

On Saturday, the governor signed an ordinance to amend the Kerala Police Act through the addition of a new clause — Section 118A. This section is a nasty piece of work. It is a repackaging of Section 66A of the IT Act and Section 118D of the Kerala Police Act, both of which were struck down by higher courts.

The new law says: “Whoever makes, expresses, publishes or disseminates through any kind of mode of communication, any matter or subject for threatening, abusing, humiliating or defaming a person or class of persons, knowing it to be false and that causes injury to the mind, reputation or property of such person or class of persons or any other person in whom they have interest shall on conviction, be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to three years or with fine which may extend to ten thousand rupees or with both.”

The recipe for intimidation and persecution is sprinkled with vague terms and phrases like “humiliating”, “defaming”, “knowing it to be false” and “causes injury to the mind”. It is obscure enough to be used against any critic of the party, government or its leading lights.

Kerala is not alone. At least two other states have shown remarkable intolerance towards criticism on mainstream and social media: Maharashtra and West Bengal. Both are non-BJP-ruled states.

In Maharashtra, the Maha Vikas Aghadi coalition of Shiv Sena, NCP and Congress has dragged Republic TV editor-in-chief Arnab Goswami over the embers. The channel’s entire staff has been targeted.

BJP supporter Sameet Thakkar has been arrested for making apparently “offensive” tweets against Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray and his son Aditya, including calling the latter “Baby Penguin” in his posts.

In Bengal, the Mamata Banerjee’s government has arrested nearly 300 people in just six months
on the pretext of cracking down on fake news, say reports. Unsurprisingly, an overwhelming number of these arrests are of her critics and BJP supporters.

On 29 June, the police swooped down on the house of Shafiqul Islam, a journalist who runs a YouTube channel called Arambagh TV. He and wife Alima Khatun were dramatically arrested in front of their four- and eight-year-old children.

His crime?

He did an exposé reportedly of Rs one lakh each being distributed to TMC’s (west bengal 'secular' party) chosen ones inside the Arambagh Police Station. He was booked for the fifth time for extortion and other charges.

BJP youth wing worker Kaushik Chakraborty was arrested for reportedly photoshopping and creating a photo of Mamata in a large pothole
. The TMC government has threatened more such action under the garb of curbing ‘fake news’.

Why are specifically non-BJP regimes getting so tyrannical and desperate to gag the media and social media critical of them?

One reason could be the BJP’s extremely aggressive year-round social media warfare. Its IT cells, like any other party’s social media outfits, have used fake news and photos in the past.

But the larger reason is that the BJP’s almost unhindered growth in every corner of India has made its regional adversaries extremely scared and insecure. They have failed to contain it even with an extremely friendly mainstream media. But with a part of mainstream media slowly turning against them, and social media in a predatory mode — fed with years of hypocrisy and patronage — these parties have their backs on the wall.

Such a slew of despotic steps to curb free speech is actually Pinarayi Vijayan, Thackeray, Sharad Pawar and Mamata Banerjee clutching at legal straws to remain politically relevant. It is an existential battle for them.

Ironically, the weapon they are using has two equally sharp edges.


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