From Frontline: “Muzzling Dissent”
“ON October 21, some Kashmiri Pandits, supported by right-wing Hindutva organisations and activists of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, the student wing of the Bharatiya Janata Party, tried to disrupt a convention on Kashmir captioned “Azadi: The only way”, organised in New Delhi. The speakers included leaders who support the Kashmiri people’s right to self-determination or freedom of Kashmir from the Indian state. The most notable among them was Syed Ali Shah Geelani, the chairperson of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference and a fervent supporter of Kashmir’s secession. The other important speaker was the writer-political activist Arundhati Roy. These two became the targets of the mob, which first disrupted the meeting and then vandalised an exhibition of photographs and documents chronicling the history of Kashmir. The protesters demanded that sedition cases be filed against the secessionist leader and Arundhati Roy.
Arun Jaitley and Sushma Swaraj, BJP leaders, also pitched in to demand that the Centre bring up sedition charges against Arundhati Roy. The Union Home Ministry showed some interest and even gave the go-ahead to the Delhi Police in the matter.
Although the convention was on Kashmir, the participants included leaders and academics who support the right to self-determination of people and have been waging political battles against the militarised regime of the Indian state in their respective regions. The event took a political turn when the protesters picked out Geelani and Arundhati Roy for attack. By the end of the day, the convention had set off a debate on freedom of speech and the right to express dissent in a democracy. Laws such as sedition and constitutional principles such as reasonable restrictions on freedom of speech began to be discussed in intellectual circles. Many people came out in support of the speakers and their right to express their opinions.
However, on October 26, even as the BJP made vehement demands, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government put at rest the idea of slapping sedition charges on the speakers. It felt such an action would harm the dialogue process that the government’s interlocutors – the journalist Dileep Padgaonkar, the academic Radha Kumar and Central Information Commissioner M.M. Ansari – had begun with the people of Kashmir. Government sources felt the BJP would capitalise on the issue. As such the government had to keep in mind the impact of any action it took as it could be seen negatively by the Kashmiri people. Arun Jaitley accused the government of “looking the other way” when separatist groups met in the capital city. He said if the Indian government thought Kashmir was an integral part of the nation, it should take action against the secessionist leaders.
A Kashmiri Pandit group, Roots in Kashmir (RIK), has filed a case against Geelani, Arundhati Roy and the others who spoke in favour of azadi. Aditya Raj Kaul, the leader of the RIK, said the content of the speeches was defamatory to the authority of the Constitution of India but the Government of India had failed to initiate any action. So he was left with no choice but to file a case directly in the court. Geelani was quoted on national television as saying that there were 90 cases against him and this could be the 91st.
The convention was organised by the Committee for the Release of Political Prisoners (CRPP), a group formed in the light of the ongoing struggles against issues such as displacement, state terror, brutal and militarised regimes and draconian Acts such as the Armed Forces Special Powers Act. The majority of the arrests made in the past few years involved political activists. The CRPP, with the underlying assumption that the people had the right to dissent against state oppression, has been demanding the release of political prisoners.
“For the last few years, the democratic and struggling people in almost all parts of India have been subjected to a series of measures and state terror continuously by the governments of different States. Thousands of people have been put behind bars in large areas in most parts of the Indian subcontinent, particularly in regions such as Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Bihar, Jharkhand, West Bengal, Assam, Manipur, Kashmir, Punjab, Tripura, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Orissa and Madhya Pradesh. The intensity of state repression and the methods adopted by different State governments might have varied from one area to another. Innumerable cases of fake encounter deaths have been reported from Kashmir, Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh, West Bengal and other areas,” says a concept note of the CRPP.
All the speakers at the convention were of the opinion that Kashmir was never a part of India historically and that Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister, had admitted that Kashmir was the subject of an international dispute and that the matter could be taken to the United Nations so that the people of Kashmir could decide whether they wanted to remain with the Indian Union. But in 1994, the Indian Parliament passed a resolution calling Kashmir an integral part of India. This, they thought, was a betrayal of the aspiration of Kashmiris.
Expressing her strong views on the military regime in Kashmir Valley, Arundhati Roy urged the people of Kashmir to forge a broad political alliance with other democratic struggles against state repression and for the right to self-determination….”
“Indian polity abounds with resistance movements against anti-people development policies and human rights violations. In such a state of affairs, many believe that if India still wants to call itself a democracy, the government has to hear the voices of the people, especially dissenting ones, rather than curb their opinions through censorship or cases of sedition at the slightest provocation.”