Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan , under fire for amending the Kerala Police Act to clamp down on free speech, has now said the proposed amendment would not be implemented. Why, then, undertake a highly controversial amendment? Is the objective then to intimidate and bully the critics, reminding them constantly of the sword of Damocles that hangs over their heads should they cross the line of what in its subjective view is acceptable criticism? Amendment 118A of the Kerala Police Act empowers police to slap charges against anyone who, among other reasons, causes `injury to the mind.’ Punishment prescribed against such offenders is a fine of up to Rs 10,000 and/or imprisonment up to three years.
Significantly, police can initiate action against alleged offenders suo motu without there being a complainant. In other words, police would now be free to monitor various social media platforms and at their discretion, launch criminal proceedings against persons perceived to be humiliating or defaming others. Such blanket powers to police the social media and lanuch criminal proceedings mirror the near-blanket ban on expressing dissent in Communist China and other dictatorial regimes.
Despite the CPI(M) being formally allied to the Communist Party of China, it needs to remember that it still has to operate in a democratic milieu under the Indian Republic. It cannot be allowed to still the voice of dissent which is integral to our democratic system. Small wonder then the Kerala amendment has provoked a nation-wide outrage, with critics hauling the Vijayan Government over the coals for its brazen assault on the constitutional right to freedom of speech and expression.
The purported objective, to protect women and children from cyber abuse, is a fig-leaf whereas the fact is that the Kerala Government is rattled by the ongoing gold smuggling scam, in which key aides of the chief minister stand implicated. The opposition parties in Kerala have sought Vijayan’s resignation, following the arrest of his principal aide. Another scam has led to the arrest of the son of a senior CPI(M) leader, forcing the party and the Left Front government on the defensive. Instead of challenging its critics with facts and a reasoned defence, the government has responded with the draconian bid to criminalise free speech.
And it is not that before the amendment, the government was not intimidating critics. According to news reports, police had initiated proceedings against 119 individuals, including 12 government employees, till June last year for allegedly offensive posts on social media against the chief minister.
Meanwhile, the chances of the amendment surviving a legal challenge seem slim. For, in 2015, the apex court had struck down a similar amendment in what came to be called the Shreya Singhal case. Section 66A of the Information Technology Act was struck down because it was so wide in its ambit that it virtually gave carte blanche to the authorities to haul up any citizen for offering an opinion which may be mildly at variance from the official line.
An 'offensive communication causing annoyance, inconvenience, danger, obstruction, insult, injury’ was so wide in its scope that nobody expressing dissent could feel safe. Yet, the Marxist regime has sought to clamp down on free speech by rehashing the ultra vires provision in the IT Act through a new amendment. Whether or not the state police invoke it to torment individuals critical of the Marxist government, it must be challenged and expunged from the statute book.
Meanwhile, the Kerala bid to silence critics yet again underlines the fact that all governments try and put down critics. Look at the way the Uddhav Thackeray government in Maharashtra is setting the state police against anyone satirising or mocking it with reason or without. Sending police to arrest social media critics to other states and to try and implicate them in multiple cases in multiple locations is meant to intimidate and harass critics and to signal others not to exercise the right to free speech lest the Maha Vikas Aghadi government comes after them with the entire might of the state. The Mamata Banerjee government in West Bengal has the same intolerant streak, intimidating anyone posting a critical post on social media. But professional Modi-haters would still pretend that only the Central government seeks to snuff out dissent. Small wonder no one takes them seriously.