State Complicity in Curbing Civil Liberties and Criminalising Activism

Oct 01, 2023
By PUCL Bulletin Editorial Board

On 5th September of 2022 , the house of the PUCL national secretary and UP State President  Seema Azad (as well as editorial committee  member of this Bulletin) was raided by the NIA. There were  raids in 8 locations of 5 districts of UP in the name of targeting Naxalism and Maoism. The NIA in the course of the raid confiscated all  devices of Seema Azad as well as some of  her books, poems, magazines, and other documents.  In a statement the PUCL condemned  this raid and noted that ‘this operation of the NIA is a serious attempt to stifle the voices of an active human rights and democracy defender’ and that the ‘PUCL demands that the NIA withdraw its investigation against Seema Azad and not criminalise any action undertaken by her in the course of her human rights work.’ This culture of raids by the NIA of human rights  has a chilling effect on activists, thinkers and intellectuals  and does serious disservice to the idea that freedom of speech and expression is the core of a constitutional democracy.

As the Manipur crisis reaches its fifth month, both the state government of Manipur headed by Biren Singh as well as the Central government still seem oblivious to their constitutional responsibilities. It bears repeating that in Manipur which is a state of the Indian union, the constitutional machinery has totally broken down. There is total ethnic segregation with there being no Kukis in the Imphal valley and no Meiteis in  the hill districts. One is not dealing with a post conflict situation, but a conflict which is still ongoing. The implications of the continuing conflict are grave for the human rights of both communities in Manipur ranging from concerns around justice and accountability to the lack of adequate facilities to take forward even basic survival of people who have lost their homes and loved one’s and been forced into taking shelter in camps in Manipur. The burning question in this situation of total breakdown of law and order is the constitutional responsibility of the Union Government which has failed to ensure governance in accordance with the constitution as per Article 355 of the Constitution.  The spotlight needs to be kept on Manipur,  and the failure of constitutional governance as the Union Government as well as the state Government would have the world forget that they have failed to protect the life, liberty and property of the people of Manipur.

The Manipur Government is trying to brazenly cover up its sins of omission and commission  by repeatedly  filing FIR’s against civil society groups and individuals who  attempt to bring attention to the absence of constitutional governance in Manipur. In the latest instance of intolerance of viewpoints which differ from theirs, the Manipur government filed an FIR against the Editors Guild for the ‘crime’ of doing a fact finding on Manipur. The PUCL in a strongly worded statement noted that ‘the Manipur State police, and indeed the Manipur government, is seeking to do is to intimidate the Editors Guild of India and other reporters from exposing the truth that they found during the Fact-Finding Exercise, about the true nature of ethnic violence that has ravaged Manipur…Both the FIR’s are nothing other than an effort to silencing voices which challenge the narrative of the Manipur government led by Biren Singh, regarding the causes of the violence in Manipur’ This strategic deployment of  the ‘criminal law’ as well as the  ‘branding of a respected body such as the Editors Guild as anti-national’ is nothing other than an attempt to ‘cow down all dissent.’

In a new low in the normalisation of  hate speech  a BJP parliamentarian, Ramesh Bidhuri   called his fellow MP, Danish Ali, ‘pimp’, ‘terrorist’, ‘militant’ and also used the words mullah and katwa in the new parliament building. The abusive language used by the MP is unfortunately common on social media as well as election speeches by leaders associated with the BJP. This is the first time however that hate speech of this nature meant to demean, ostracize and isolate the entire Muslim community has been hurled  in parliament itself. The Speaker is yet to take action against  Ramesh Bidhuri for openly challenging  the core constitutional principles  of fraternity, dignity and equality.

The  reason  why such hate speech should be taken seriously is made most eloquently by the Canadian Supreme Court in Saskatchewan v Whatcott where the Court held:

[such]…dehumanizing expression…calls into question whether group members qualify as human beings…Such delegitimization reduces the target group’s credibility, social standing and acceptance within society and is a key aspect of the social harm caused by hate speech…Hate speech, therefore, rises beyond causing distress to individual group members. It can have a societal impact. Hate speech lays the ground-work for later, broad attacks on vulnerable groups that can range from discrimination, to ostracism, segregation, deportation, violence and, in the most extreme cases, to genocide. Hate speech also impacts on a protected group’s ability to respond to the substantive ideas under debate, thereby placing a serious barrier to their full participation in our democracy

This principle is reiterated by the Indian  Supreme Court in  Pravasi Bhalai Sanghatan v Union of India, emphasizing again the importance of tackling hate speech. If this legal understanding is applied to Bidhuri’s speech one sees that the speech attacks the fundamental basis of our constitutional order, namely our shared humanity. Bidhuri is stigmatizing Muslims as less than human and signalling  from the highest forum of the country, that Muslims are not deserving of equal respect as fellow citizens of India. He is  sending out a message that too from the floor of  parliament that an entire community can be demeaned and the ideal of the Indian constitution of equal citizenship and equal respect can be besmirched. While such a speech by any person in any forum is deeply corrosive of the idea of democracy, the fact that is by a parliamentarian in parliament is even more damaging.   It is also a violation of his oath to ‘bear true faith and allegiance to the constitution of India’. Outside parliament, there have been strong condemnations of the speech both by opposition political parties, media as well as civil society organisations. Its important that the Speaker take clear and decisive action which sends out a clear message that the violation of the constitutional oath with such impunity and that too in parliament will be dealt with seriously.

Coming to the controversy over Sanatana Dharma, we  need to understand its implications within the framework of the Constitution. The Constitution under Article 17 provides for the criminalisation of the ‘practice of untouchability’. From the point of view of the framers, it was clear that ‘untouchability’ should be eliminated. The demand for rooting out the system of beliefs from which the practice of untouchability  and caste discrimination emerge is very much aligned to the thinking of the Constitution and has a long history of demanding social justice during the pre-independence period. For example, the Vaikom Satyagraha (1924-25) opposing the ban on entry of people considered “lower or outcastes” into temples, led to the historic `Temple Entry Proclamation’ of 12th November,1936, issued by the Maharaja Chithirai Thirunal Balarama Varma of Travancore which abolished the ban on so called `a-varnas’ (castes outside the four varna system) or low castes from entering temples in Travancore. The Mahad Satyagraha (in Raigad district of Maharashtra) on 20th March, 1927 led by Dr. BR Ambedkar was to allow “untouchables to use water from the public tank”. This day is observed as ‘social Empowerment Day’. All along, the agitation by so-called `lower caste groups’ and  Dalits to access public streets, to the right to enter and worship in Hindu temples as well as the right to marry across lines of caste have been opposed tooth and nail by upper caste groups calling themselves `Sanatanists’. However the Constitution sanctifies these just demands through Article 15(2) which recognizes the rights of Dalits to access public spaces without discrimination, Article 17 which prohibits the practice of untouchability and Article 15(1) which prohibits discrimination on grounds of caste.

Finally we note the recent protest letter by over 1800 organisations and individuals regarding the hosting by the NHRC of  the Asia Pacific Form’s 28th Biannual Conference. The NHRC hosting the conference was seen as an attempt to ‘gain credibility after failing to be accredited with an A grade by the Global Alliance of National Human Rights Institutions (GANHRI) in March 2023.’  The letter noted ‘It’s important that the world understand that to fulfil the G-20 rhetoric of being the ‘mother of democracy’ India has to ensure that the human rights guaranteed by the Indian Constitution and the ICCPR and the ICESCR become the patrimony of every citizen. To do that it is of crucial importance that the NHRC take its mandate seriously as an institution which ensures accountability of the state to Part III of the Indian Constitution.’

Every assault on constitutional rights is being met with push back. The violations in Manipur are being kept in the public eye by courageous organisations and  individuals. Danish Ali has received a lot of support both online and offline. The NHRC’s failures have been exposed on a global scale. Udayanidhi Stalin has also received support from constitutionally minded groups.

There  is a need, in fact an urgent need for more people to speak out and act against the threats to the Constitution.