The high-optics drama of forcing Congress leader Pawan Khera to deplane from an IndiGo flight from Delhi to Raipur on Thursday and his subsequent arrest by the Assam police for his alleged derogatory comment against Prime Minister Narendra Modi would be hilarious if it weren’t also deeply sinister.
All that Khera, whom the Supreme Court released on an interim bail the same day, did was that in a moment of apparent confusion, he referred to the Prime Minister’s middle name as 'Gautamdas' instead of 'Damodardas'.
The “mistake” could well have been a “slip of the tongue” as Khera claimed, or it may have been a barb directed at the PM for his alleged proximity to industrialist Gautam Adani whose business empire has been feeling the heat internationally ever since a report by the New York-based short-selling firm Hindenburg Research said that it was grossly over-valued and built on dodgy practices.
Either way, how does Khera’s lapse merit this extreme and paranoid reaction on the part of the state?
Congress leader Pawan Khera was deplaned and arrested as he referred to the Prime Minister’s middle name as 'Gautamdas' instead of 'Damodardas'.
Khera’s arrest came after cases were registered against him in Assam and Uttar Pradesh under various sections of the Indian Penal Code, including criminal conspiracy,
In protest, the other Congress leaders on the flight who were on their way to the party’s plenary session in Raipur, sat on a dharna on the tarmac.
Whether it is a piece of journalism or a throwaway taunt by an Opposition leader, or a satirical song or a standup comedy act, there seems to be an increasing threat to freedom of expression in recent years.
Does Pawan's Khera's Arrest Put Democracy Under Threat?
Khera’s arrest came after cases were registered against him in Assam and Uttar Pradesh under various sections of the Indian Penal Code, including Sections 120B (criminal conspiracy), 153A, 153 B(1) (promoting enmity on grounds of religion, race, place of birth, etc), 500 (defamation), 504 (intentional insult with intent to provoke breach of the peace), 505 (1) and (2) (statements conducing to public mischief).
This is bizarre. By what stretch of the imagination can it be said that making a mistake about the Prime Minister’s name amounts to criminal conspiracy? Or even that mocking him promotes enmity on grounds of religion, race, and so on, or that it shows the intent to commit breach of peace?
Has the government lost the memo that India is a democracy and that in one, citizens have the right to freedom of expression which includes the right to criticise and even mock their elected leaders for their perceived acts of commission and omission?
The Congress has slammed Khera’s arrest as evidence of India’s descent into dictatorship, one where the merest whiff of a jibe against the supreme leader invites swift retribution. In a rare show of quick-footed spiritedness, the other Congress leaders on the flight who were on their way to the party’s plenary session in Raipur, sat on a dharna on the tarmac and protested against Khera’s summary arrest.
BJP's Rising Intolerance Towards Comment or Criticism
Incidentally, the entire operation against Khera seemed to be astonishingly ill-timed and clumsily executed, since de-boarding him from a plane full of Congress leaders and ordinary citizens led to the former launching a dharna right then and there, and left the latter annoyed and inconvenienced (the flight had to be cancelled).
However, the BJP government at the Centre and its proxies in the states ruled by the party do not seem to care about how ham-handed and vindictive they appear when they move against a person or an institution deemed to be critical of their leadership.
The charges against Khera are frivolous of course, and they will certainly not stand in court. Therefore, the purpose of this and other such exercises seems to be merely to send out the message to the country in general and to the BJP’s core constituency in particular, that the might of the state will be unleashed against anyone who dares to question the regime or its leadership.
In January this year, the government banned the BBC documentary ‘The Modi Question’, which explored the then chief minister of Gujarat’s alleged role in the riots of 2002. Whether it was a fair portrayal or not, since Modi has been exonerated by the country’s courts, since he continues to enjoy phenomenal popularity, where was the need to ban the documentary?
In truth, the ban was an assault on the freedom of expression enshrined in the country’s Constitution, it made the subject of the documentary seem touchy and intolerant, it drew international bad press, and made more people aware of the documentary than they would have been without the government order to take it down from every internet platform.
Political Vendetta, Police Crackdowns Put Freedom of Expression at Stake
Earlier this month, the BBC was subjected to income tax surveys which, coming close on the heels of the ban on the documentary, immediately fuelled the perception that the government was continuing its vendetta against an independent news organisation.
Indeed, whether it is a piece of journalism or a throwaway taunt by an Opposition leader, or a satirical song or a standup comedy act, there seems to be an increasing threat to freedom of expression in recent years. Last week, folk singer Neha Rathore, famous for her satirical series of songs UP mein ka ba, was served a notice by the Uttar Pradesh police for allegedly causing tension and enmity in society. And there have been umpteen examples of right-wing lumpens going after comedians like Vir Das, Kunal Kamra, or Munawar Faruqui and forcing them to cancel their shows.
Equally disturbing is the fact that the police forces in states under the ruling party, have become the biggest bludgeon in the hands of the government to execute these attempts to clamp down on people who are considered to be irritants.
The Assam police under Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma, is the most active in this regard. The state provides a hospitable terrain for cases to be filed against irritants, and its police force is always at the ready to go and pick them up and lock them away. The arrest of Gujarat Congress leader Jignesh Mevani by the Assam police last year is another case in point.
The BJP government at the Centre does itself no service by appearing to be so thin-skinned about criticism. In public life, you are open to be criticised, poked fun at, and, most importantly, held accountable for your actions. Freedom of speech and expression is inherent to democracy. If the government cannot come to terms with that, it should cease to pat itself on the back at home and abroad for helming the largest “democracy” in the world.
(Shuma Raha is a journalist and author. She tweets @ShumaRaha. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)