I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.
No democracy can claim to be one, unless freedom of speech and expression are guaranteed by statute and where the state machinery works to ensure compliance not only in the behavior of government, but of its citizens. The curbing of expression with threat and through terror, increasingly more menacing, should be condemned and stopped, if our country is to become a mature democracy. Indeed, the expression of varied and differing opinions strengthen the political discourse and empowers people to make informed choices.
In the last fortnight there has been a resurgence of attacks to curb the right to free speech and expression of Indian citizens who did not share the euphoria, hope and enthusiasm associated with recent election results.
It is important to note that such attempts to curtail the right to free speech and expression of writers, academics, activists and ordinary citizens have been recurring incidents over the past two decades, irrespective of the political party in power. Last month, a widely respected and well known Kannada writer, U.R.Ananthamurthy was sent a one-way ticket to Karachi as well as threatened with phones calls asking him “when he was going to leave” for saying “ I would not like to live in a country ruled by Modi.” In another incident, a youth, Syed Vaqas, along with four friends from Bhatkal, Karnataka were arrested for sending a message (when the election results were announced) caricaturing the BJP government’s election slogan “aab ki bar antimsanskar (modisarkar).” A third incident is about a 31-year-old naval engineer from Goa, Devu Chodankar, for his alleged inflammatory comments against Mr. Narendra Modi on social media. More recently, in Bihar members of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) disrupted a People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) seminar, to discuss the detention of Professor G.N. Saibaba of Delhi University (arrested for alleged Maoist links) and its implications for human rights. Or take the case of the two girls from Palghar, Maharashtra who were arrested for criticizing the shutdown of Mumbai for Shiv Sena’s chief Bal Thakeray’s funeral in 2012, even though the Constitution of India guarantees plurality of diverse political opinion. All these incidents signify acts of political expression that were reinterpreted as not conforming to mainstream positions.
In the two recent cases in Karnataka and Goa, the representatives of police in Goa and Bangalore have stated in the newspapers that these cases do not warrant arrests; but the PMO has remained silent on this blatant attack on curbing citizens’ free speech and expression.
As concerned citizens of a free and democratic India we protest against the continuing intolerant legislative attempts at criminalizing dissenting opinion and those in certain sections of society that take law into their hands to disrupt peaceful discussions and dialogue. In particular, we oppose the use of the draconic Section 66A of the IT Act. The IT Act has been worded deliberately to give unbridled powers to the State to clamp down on free speech. Section 66A prescribes criminal punishment of up to 3 years for merely sending messages which can cause ‘annoyance’ or ‘inconvenience’ or ‘danger’ or ‘insult,’ and gives unfettered discretion to enforcement agencies to enforce it. The recent incidents signify abuse under this provision that gives freedom to those in power to violate the fundamental rights guaranteed by our Constitution.
We believe that voicing of dissent, expression of concern, constructive criticism and adversarial dialogue are an integral part of deliberative democracy. The ongoing attempts to quell political dissent or dialogue among citizens through draconian laws for ulterior motives poses a grave danger to Indian democracy.
We the undersigned demand that the Government of India and all State Governments respect and protect all constitutional rights to free speech and expression, and personal liberty as guaranteed by Article 19 (1) (a), and Article 21 of the Constitution of India.
We fully support the right of all citizens to freely express their views, dissenting or otherwise.
We demand the concerned authorities follow due process and drop the exaggerated criminal charges against all these individuals.
We strongly condemn the use of social policing, boycott and other means of state coercion to silence citizens, legitimized through regressive legislations such as the IT Act. We demand that section 66A of the IT Act should be deleted.
We urge the Prime Minister, and the Government of India and all State Governments to respect the right of citizens’ to express their thoughts and views, guaranteed by the Constitution of India, without fear of retribution.
Afroz Alam Sahil
Bina Sarkar Ellias
Devasahayam M G
Dr. A Gopalakrishnan
Dr. Anand Teltumbde
Dr. Divya Singhal
Dr. R. Padmini
Dr. Shaikh Ghulam Rasool
Jayadev U. K.
Madan Gopal Singh
P L Mimroth
Paranjoy Guha Thakurta
Prem Krishan Sharma
Radha Kant Saxena
Rakesh Reddy Dubbudu
Ramaswamy R. Iyer
Ravi Kiran Jain