The right to express opinion, charitable or not, is fundamental to the spirit of democracy
Laws are pivotal to society. They are necessary instruments to establish order and authority. But in the hands of authoritarian governments, legislations are often misused to deny people their rights. Ironically, the reason cited to legitimize such transgressions is the perceived ‘threat’ to public order. Consider the decision by the government of Manipur — the muscular Bharatiya Janata Party heads the coalition in the state — that has decided to invoke the stringent National Security Act to detain a journalist, Kishorchandra Wangkhem, for uploading content critical of the chief minister. What makes the government’s infraction all the more glaring is that the magistrate, while taking note of the intemperate language that had been used in the video, had granted bail to Mr Wangkhem. This was evidently too mild a censure for the prickly dispensation led by the chief minister, N. Biren Singh. The journalist was imprisoned, this time under the NSA, a legal deterrent that is meant to be used to punish those guilty of inspiring armed insurrection and violent mobilizations. The temptation to impose stringent penalties cuts across political boundaries. Citizens have been arrested for critical, satirical or unsavoury comments against such leaders as the prime minister, the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh as well as the lady who is in charge of West Bengal.
The right to express opinion, charitable or not, is fundamental to the spirit of democracy. This is not to suggest that inflammatory or objectionable views ought to be condoned. Laws exist to penalize citizens when they cross the line. But the propensity of politicians to crack the whip against critics by misappropriating law is deeply troubling. It may be reasonably argued that such interventions could imperil freedoms, precipitating the republic’s rush towards an Orwellian future. Tellingly, the Centre has permitted a clutch of agencies to monitor the information that is stored in computers or exchanged among their users. This, in a country whose highest court has accorded privacy to be a fundamental right. Could it be that adverse electoral outcomes have made the BJP even more sensitive to criticism? If so, the wise men in charge of the governments of Manipur and New Delhi should know that passing draconian measures that seek to curb the voice of the people could erode the BJP’s popularity further.