Last week, the Tripura police slapped the draconian Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) and a raft of other charges, such as criminal conspiracy and forgery, on 102 people, including journalists, for their social media posts on the communal violence in the state. One of the journalists, Shyam Meera Singh, said that he was booked under the stringent anti-terror law merely because he had tweeted “Tripura is burning”.
Journalists on the ground and independent observers have confirmed that Tripura had, in fact, been burning. In the last week of October, rallies taken out by right-wing groups in north Tripura to protest incidents of vandalism against the Hindu minority community in Bangladesh erupted in wanton lawlessness. There were reports that mosques were set ablaze and houses and shops vandalised. The state government, where the BJP is in power, has denied these reports and claimed that the videos of the alleged attack on Islamic places of worship circulating on social media were “fake news”.
When Denial Is Not Enough, State Action Follows
However, in today’s India, the state is no longer content with issuing a stout denial that it has failed to do its duty by its citizens and protect them from harm. It is no longer enough to deny that the government stood by and allowed majoritarian lumpens to terrorise and attack the minority community. The denial must be buttressed and rendered beyond dispute by silencing those likely to dispute it, namely, journalists, activists and anyone who disseminates a view contrary to that of the state in the media, especially on social media.
Just a few days before the Tripura police’s action against 102 social media account holders, the state also booked four Supreme Court lawyers under Section 13 of the UAPA, along with other charges such as “promoting enmity between religious groups”, causing a breach of peace and public order, and so on. The move came after the lawyers visited the state as an independent fact-finding team and said that the minority community had indeed been targeted and that there ought to be a judicial probe into the incidents.
This is part of the new Indian State’s bag-of-tricks — crush dissent and throttle those who dare to criticise or not toe the line by deploying, and hence, brazenly misusing the harshest laws against them.
Section 13 of the UAPA, for instance, applies to an act that “incites secession” or “disrupts the sovereignty of India” – charges that are unlikely to hold water against individuals who may have merely highlighted certain incidents of violence.
When Process Becomes the Punishment
But the point is not whether the charges will eventually stand — the point is that the agonising, tortuous and long-drawn-out legal process, including the denial of bail and consequent lengthy incarceration, will itself become the punishment. Besides, and perhaps as importantly, this serves the stellar purpose of intimidating others who harbour similar notions of standing up to the state and calling out its misdeeds, and its increasingly scant regard for the secular, pluralistic ethos of the Indian Constitution.
The frequent targeting of journalists is part of the same game plan. Free speech and freedom of the press are key to a democracy. Bludgeon free speech and lock up journalists for doing their job and reporting the truth, and you hollow out the very foundations of a democratic nation. The BJP-ruled state of Uttar Pradesh, presided over by Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, has turned this exercise into a sort of standard operating procedure.
The government — or, at its bidding, the police — files FIRs against journalists at the drop of a hat, even for reports such as the alleged lack of facilities at a COVID-19 quarantine centre.
And of course, there is always the heavy artillery of the UAPA, with its exceedingly tough provisions for bail, that’s brought to bear on any journalist who is considered an irritant.
In October 2020, Siddique Kappan, a journalist from Kerala, was arrested by the Uttar Pradesh police while he was on his way to Hathras, where a young girl was gang-raped. Kappan, who has often written about the growing incidence of discrimination against Muslims, was charged with promoting enmity between groups, outraging religious feelings, sedition, and the UAPA as well. More than a year after his arrest, he continues to languish in an Uttar Pradesh prison. Though the police have not been able to gather evidence of his alleged error links, he is yet to get bail.
A Fearful State
India ranks 142 among 180 countries in the World Press Freedom Index 2021 and is arguably one of the most dangerous places on earth for practising journalists. The irony is that despite the Narendra Modi government’s contempt for and open hostility towards non-pliant journalists who speak truth to power, it reportedly lobbied hard to see if the country’s press freedom ranking this year could be bumped up in some way. Nice to know that there are times when the ruling party has to digest the fact that “image”, too, needs to be based on a modicum of reality.
And the reality is a grim one. Whether in Uttar Pradesh, centrally-administered Kashmir Valley, or in Tripura and elsewhere, the persistent attempt to criminalise journalists by invoking sedition or terror laws against them sends out the message that this government wants to stifle independent sources of information, is pathologically intolerant of critics, and will go to any lengths to silence them.
Of course, the assault on free speech is not limited to journalists. It is multi-pronged, playing out in various spheres of Indian society, and has led to a progressive shrinking of space for freedom of expression and individual liberties. Recently, some students in two Srinagar medical colleges were charged with the UAPA after they allegedly cheered for Pakistan in an India-Pakistan T20 match.
An intolerant state is also a fearful state, attempting to transfer its own secret insecurity and lack of confidence onto its people by putting them in an information straitjacket and curbing their constitutional right to freedom of speech.
The Tripura police’s bizarre decision to bring extreme charges against those who had called attention to the communal violence in the state is a manifestation of that fear.
(Shuma Raha is a journalist and author. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)