Killing Dissent In India
Suppressing dissent is the hallmark of an intolerant government and fascism. Under such circumstances, dissenting opinion on the issue of nationalism and religion can attract the government’s wrath and also irk religious and nationalist fanatics. Hard nationalistic forces always try to impose their own version of history by distorting facts, suppressing dissent and dividing the social fabric of communities. This is what is happening in India, today. Freedom of expression, one of the basic human rights principles, is in danger from communal, sectarian forces and government response. In this context, media, intellectuals, social workers and human rights NGOs are being silenced through the misuse of laws and regulations.
Latest in what is now becoming a pattern in terms of the response of the Indian government is NDTV. For the first time, the Union government has ordered a TV news channel to be blacked out for allegedly revealing “strategically sensitive information” during a terror attack. The Ministry of Information and Broadcasting ordered a 24-hour ban of the Hindi news channel NDTV India for its coverage of the militant attack on the Pathankot airbase. The notice was served to NDTV India under the programme code, a list of broadcast rules made by the Union government as per the Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Act of 1995, which was amended in 2015 to prohibit “live coverage of any anti-terrorist operation by security forces… till such operation concludes.”
However, other news outlets had also disclosed much of the same information as NDTV, with the latter differing only in terms of the questions it raised. As such, only NDTV faced the music. This is first time in India that such a harsh punishment is sentenced to the fourth pillar of democracy. Some social organization have termed this act of government as “one step closer to the emergency.” NDTV is strategically targeted due to its critical stand towards the Modi government in previous media coverage. Unlike, other media houses who avoid criticizing the Modi government and meekly tow the official line, NDTV has raised questions that counter the official government discourse on many occasions. It is worth reiterating that the media is supposed to be independent of the executive, and thus, its role is to question the government where relevant. In India, however, most news channels have taken on the role of propaganda machinery of the government. NDTV India’s ban has to be located in this larger context.
It is not just the media that is being targeted. Individual criticism is clamped down upon using the sedition act. Frequent use of the sedition act to crush dissent is becoming a powerful tool for communal and nationalist forces. One such example is Amnesty International India - which is accused of sedition in India for promoting “anti-India” sentiments. Amnesty was slapped with sedition charges under pressure from right-wing activists for providing a platform for the families of victims of human rights violations in Jammu and Kashmir to voice their anger and frustration.
A case of sedition was filed against actor-turned-politician Ramya, a congress politician, for sharing an opinion that "Pakistan is not hell” -- a comment she made after a visit to the country and as a retort to Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar's recent proclamation that "going to Pakistan is like going to hell." "I will not apologise as I have done nothing wrong. I am entitled to my views and that is what democracy is about," Ramya told NDTV, alleging that sedition laws are misused against "anybody and everybody". This incidence reflects the level of intolerance against freedom of expression. This example also demonstrates how one can be penalized for having a dissenting opinion from the national ideological narrative.
In both cases, it was the agents of a right wing nationalist party who took offense, filled/pressurised the police to slap the sedition charges including public protest and throwing eggs on the dissenter. Noteworthy is the fact that once slapped with sedition charges, the long delays and expansive legal system can make life of the affected person miserable.
The attack on NGOs is larger. Thousands of NGO licenses have been cancelled and many of them either cannot receive foreign funding or foreign funds will pass via an Indian government channel. It is very unlikely that the Modi government will let foreign funds pass to NGOs critical of the Indian government, or those that are working on core human rights issues such as police torture and caste discrimination.
The current level of government intolerance is so high that even those whom question recent fake encounters of alleged terrorists in Bhopal are being called ‘traitors’ or those who oppose the national narratives of nationalism in any form are being touted as ‘enemies of the state’.
There is also an attempt to re-write the history of ancient India excluding critical historiography and views of eminent historians from national textbooks of history. In the past, these acts were done by English and communist historians to promote their own version of history. However, in recent times, Hindu religious-nationalistic forces are doing the same. In this connection, top appointments in prestigious institutions are also being done to promote hard nationalist agendas. Appointments of Gajendra Chauhan as the Chairman of Film and Television Institute of India, Y Sudershan Rao as the Chairperson of Indian Council of Historical Research, and Lokesh Chandra as President, Indian Council for Cultural Relations are such controversial appointments done with the intention to allegedly carry forward the party ideology to publicly run institutions.
Critical minds questioning the hegemonic idea of religion and nationalism are risking being labelled as “anti-national.” Responses to such scenarios from the cultural and intellectual elite have also been selective and limited. By not speaking in the support of civil and political rights such intellectuals are just only perpetuating the cultural hegemony which demonizes anyone who dares challenge the dominant national narrative or ideology.
Against this background, it has become quite challenging to freely express one’s opinion and exercise freedom of expression, especially when rise of hegemonic nationalism and religious fundamentalism is threatening critical voices in India -- with the support from Modi government.
(Amit singh is a Norway based Independent Human Security and social justice researcher writes on freedom of expression, refugees, religious conflicts, discrimination and human rights issue.)
(This article is an opinion piece that does not necessarily reflect the views of the publication.)