Independence Day 2020
Independence Day 2020
PTI Photo

The Supreme Court of India, the apex court of the world’s biggest democracy, on the eve of the country’s 74th Independence Day held advocate and activist Prashant Bhushan guilty of contempt of court for his two tweets on CJI SA Bobde and the SC. In one of the tweets, he had commented on the CJI’s ‘Fast and Furious’ avatar and in another, the ‘destruction of democracy’ and ‘particularly the role of the last four CJIs’ during the six years of PM Modi’s regime.

When the top court of the land finds contempt in criticism, we know the ‘free’ in freedom is still far from achieving. However, this isn’t a new phenomenon. Years ago when Jawaharlal Nehru gave his famous ‘Tryst with Destiny’ speech and announced India’s freedom from the British Raj, it was immediately later when he, along with Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, agreed to place ‘reasonable restrictions’ on free speech.

As we look over the course of the last one year, the restrictions on free speech and expression have come rather alarmingly at the forefront. Activists and journalists speaking against the ruling dispensation have been detained. People have been mercilessly thrashed and slapped with FIRs for social media posts criticising the ‘supreme leaders’. Students were beaten black and blue for protesting. A state was turned into two union territories. A contentious bill was passed when there were nation-wide protests against it. Thousands are dying because of the country’s almost invisible medical infrastructure. Scores of people have lost their jobs amid the pandemic. So, what Independence Day are we really celebrating?

Coronavirus Pandemic:

The first COVID-19 case in India was reported on January 30 in Kerala. However, it was not until March 10 after cases rose in 13 states and union territories when the severity of the situation was realised. A 21-day lockdown was imposed. It led to the loss of livelihood for the inter-state migrants and thus began the mass exodus - on foot. The pictures and videos of these poor souls walking miles and miles to reach their native places would even bring tears to the dead. A few even died mid-way of hunger and some in tragic accidents.

Migrants from Bihar arrive to board a Shramik train at Chennai Central Railway Station
Migrants from Bihar arrive to board a Shramik train at Chennai Central Railway Station
PTI Photo

The pandemic also exposed the country’s underfunded healthcare system. According to a report, the US spends 16.9% of its GDP on healthcare, France and Germany both spend 11.2%, Italy 8.8%, on the other hand, India spends a mere 1.3% of its GDP on healthcare. Yes, this is a failure of this particular government but no government in the past either has considered it a priority. When healthcare has always been an agenda in the American elections, parties in India more often than not rake up the Hindu-Muslim issue.

The pandemic has had a disastrous impact with over 122 million people having lost their jobs only in April alone. At the time of writing, nearly 50,000 people had succumbed to the virus and India was catching up with Brazil and the United States in the COVID-19 cases tally.

India-China faceoff:

On June 15, the Indian and the Chinese troops engaged in an aggressive face-off in eastern Ladakh’s Galwan Valley along the Line of Actual Control (LAC). 20 Indian soldiers and an unspecified number of PLA troops died in the skirmish. This was the most deadly clash between the two countries in nearly 50 years.

China then laid claim on the entire Galwan Valley region and blamed India for the clash. "The Galwan Valley lies on the Chinese side of the Line of Actual Control in the western section of the China-India border. For many years, Chinese border guards have been patrolling and performing their duties normally,” said the Chinese Foreign Ministry. However, India rejected China’s ‘exaggerated and untenable’ claims. As a response to the face-off, India banned 59 Chinese mobile apps, including the popular TikTok, citing them to be a security threat and termed the ban as a “digital strike”.

‘Boycott Chinese products’ wave caught up in India with Union Minister Ramdas Athawale even seeking a ban on Chinese food and restaurants. Those questioning the government over the Chinese intrusion have been labelled as anti-nationals. However, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi continues to attack the Prime Minister and his ‘lack of courage’. Modi’s Leh visit was nothing short of a spectacle but the country is still awaiting an appropriate response.

Boycott Chinese products
Boycott Chinese products
ANI Photo

The Kashmir conundrum:

The abrogation of Article 370 and 35A, which accorded special status to Jammu and Kashmir and provided special rights and privileges to the permanent residents of the state, was BJP’s poll promise and was delivered on August 5, 2019. The state leaders were put under house arrest, curfew was imposed across the state, mobile, television, landline and internet services were suspended, paramilitary personnel were deployed in every nook and corner as Home Minister Amit Shah announced the bifurcation of the state into two union territories – Jammu and Kashmir, with a legislature, and Ladakh, without a legislature.

Kashmir
Kashmir
PTI Photo

BJP had promised that the decision would result in private investments in the region as well as employment. The then Governor Satya Pal Malik had announced that 50,000 vacant government posts would be filled. Addressing the people of the state, PM Modi had said that Article 370 had given rise to separatism, terrorism, nepotism and corruption. A new dawn was promised to the people of the state. However, even as the government-friendly media flashes pictures of normalcy in the region, local reports tell a different story even after a year.

Former Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti, who ran a coalition government with BJP until the alliance collapsed in June 2018, has been under detention ever since the abrogation. Meanwhile, NC leader and former CM Omar Abdullah, who was released from detention after nearly eight months, said that he will not be contesting any Assembly elections while J&K remains a UT.

Citizenship Amendment Act:

Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) which grants non-Muslim immigrants from India's three Muslim-majority neighbours - Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan - to become citizens of India was passed in December last year and resulted in massive protests across the country. According to a report, demonstrations took place in at least 94 districts across 14 states and deaths of at least 31 people were related to the violence that ensued during the protests. The Shaheen Bagh protest, a sit-in peaceful protest, led by women in the national capital became the face of the protests. Demonstrations were also seen in England, Germany, Switzerland, South Africa and the United States as well.

Shaheen Bagh
Shaheen Bagh
Photo credits: Twitter

Opposition argued that the Act violates the Constitution's Article 14, the fundamental right to equality to all persons and would legally establish Muslims as second-class citizens of the country. However, Chidambaram and a few others have suggested that the CAA in tandem with NRC (National Register of Citizens) and National Population Register (NPR) is part of the RSS-BJP plan to push its divisive agenda of a Hindu Rashtra.

Meanwhile, with Delhi Assembly elections poised around the same time, several BJP leaders, including Anurag Thakur, Kapil Mishra and Parvesh Verma, were even seen raising incendiary slogans. As the protests continued, riots broke out in Northeast Delhi between anti-CAA and pro-CAA protestors. The violence took a communal turn and led to the death of over 53 people. Shops were lifted and houses burned. It also coincided with US President Donald Trump’s gala event - Namaste Trump - in India.

Dr Kafeel Khan and many others detained:

Dr Kafeel Khan, who was hailed as a hero for saving the lives of children in a hospital when it ran short of oxygen supply, became a villain of the story as the Yogi Adityanath government denied that any deaths had occurred due to oxygen shortage. Khan had told reporters that in 2017 that the CM had given him a warning. “I will see you,” he had reportedly said.

Khan was jailed for nine months after a criminal case of medical negligence, corruption and dereliction of duty was filed against him. However, a state government probe has absolved him of all charges and commended him for doing everything in his power to help save the lives of the children.

Dr Kafeel Khan
Dr Kafeel Khan
PTI Photo

Khan was again arrested in January, however, this time for a speech he delivered at the Aligarh Muslim University on 12 December 2019. An incarcerated Khan in July wrote, “What is my mistake for which I am being punished? When will I be able to return to my kids, my wife, my brothers & sisters?” However, at the time of writing, Khan’s detention under the National Security Act (NSA) 1980 was extended for a period of three months.

It is not only Khan, there are scores of activists and students who have been put behind bars. A 27-year-old pregnant activist Safoora Zargar, charged under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, 2019 (UAPA), who was jailed in April was granted bail in July. 80-year-old poet and activist Varavara Rao, accused in the Elgar Parishad-Maoist links case and in jail for 22 months, had pleaded bail on medical grounds. Even though he was in a "delirious state and hallucinating", the court did not grant him bail. Later, he was tested positive for COVID-19.

The curse of social media:

The social media, which effectively grants free speech and expression to any individual irrespective of the strata of the society he/she belongs, is also a tool which could lead you behind bars. A BJP worker in West Bengal was arrested for posting obscene content about Mamata Banerjee. A man and his 21-year-old son in Nodia were arrested after they allegedly shared an objectionable picture of PM Modi on Whatsapp groups. A Mumbai man was booked after he allegedly referred Aaditya Thackeray as ‘baby penguin' and Uddhav Thackeray as a 'modern-day Aurangazeb'. The list goes on and on.

Recently, many comedians also faced the brunt of social media. After stand-up comedian Agrima Joshua’s old video, in which she was seen cracking jokes on Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj's upcoming statue in the Arabian Sea, went viral on the internet, it was met with a tremendous amount of flak. Maharashtra Home Minister Anil Deshmukh also instructed Mumbai Police to take legal action against Joshua. Around the same time, at least seven stand-up comedians either deactivated their Twitter accounts or protected it after netizens began digging up their old tweets and videos in which they were "mocking" Hindu Gods and Goddesses. Some of these comedians even posted 'apology' videos as right-wing Twitterati began calling them ‘Hinduphobic’. Meanwhile, comedian Utsav Chakraborty, in a long thread on Twitter, said that every comedian has cracked Muslim, Christian and Sikh joke. However, nothing happened then, the comedian added.

These days with every stand-up, every movie, every show being termed as ‘anti-Hindu’ or ‘anti-Muslim’ or ‘anti-national’ and is pulled down on social media, how can any artform survive if we keep stifling the creator?

As PM Modi gives a clarion call for Atma Nirbhar Bharat, saying it is need of the hour and that India will realize this dream, let us also remind him and the others of Justice DY Chandrachud’s fitting words - “Dissent is the safety valve of democracy. If dissent is not allowed, then the pressure cooker may burst."

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