Freedom Under Fire: 'Reasonable' Restrictions on Free Speech; Special Courts For Dalits in Gujarat

A round-up of news, both bad and good, on the rights front from India.

The ‘reasonable’ restrictions on free speech

“Journalism,” said George Orwell, “is printing what someone else does not want printed: everything else is public relations.”

T.S. Thakur, the chief justice of India, though, would beg to differ. At the second Justice J.S. Verma Memorial Lecture on September 21, he said that the media must operate within the reasonable restrictions of free speech provided in the constitution.

The Hindustan Times reported Thakur insisting that “If media wants to be free, it must be fair. If it ceases to be fair, it can’t remain free”, while emphasising the importance of ethical journalism.

Thakur’s concern seems to have been the conflict between freedom of expression and an individual’s right to privacy and to a reputation. But his assessment of contemporary journalism takes into account only one side of the story.

On the other hand, there are journalists like Prabhat Singh, who are prosecuted for not toeing the line. On September 19, Newslaundry reported that Singh, a journalist in Bastar, had gone missing for the past three days, while still out on bail. Singh resurfaced on September 20 and posted on Facebook that he was safe. In March, Singh had been arrested for a WhatsApp message, charged with sections 292 and 67 of the Information Technology Act. Singh maintains that he was arrested because of the “anti-state” line he took in a case that many believed was a fake encounter.

Before his disappearance, Singh had apparently told his co-worker, Kamal Shukla, that he was afraid he might be kidnapped and in a message on a WhatsApp group, Singh reportedly wrote that he suspected the Chhattisgarh government wanted to have him abducted. Shukla told Newslaundry that according to his sources, the police were planning to “drop” Singh in the middle of a protest by the vigilante group, Agnee, that purportedly intends to counter Naxalism in the state.

Bastar is difficult journalistic terrain with several ‘someone’s’ who don’t want things printed. Reporters have to deal with threats and intimidation, in addition to negotiating the slippery slope between the state, dissidents and vigilantes. Singh’s case, along with several others, evidently shows that there are ample restrictions on the freedom of speech and of print, without the judiciary adding to it.

Gujarat announces special court for Dalits

On September 22, Gujarat home minister, Pradipsinh Jadeja announced that the state would set up special atrocity courts for Dalits, The Statesman reported. Jadeja said that this was to meet the “long-pending” demand of the Dalit community. The special courts are scheduled to be functional from October 1.

The announcement comes after a widespread and intense agitation by Dalit activists after two Dalit boys were flogged for allegedly skinning dead cows in Una.

With rising incidents of cow vigilantism, this is a welcome move to address Dalit interests. But the Gujarat government neglected to mention whether the courts would redress the Muslim victims of gau rakshaks.

On September 12, Mohammad Ayyub was chased and beaten to death by gau rakshaks in Ahmedabad for carrying calves in the boot of his car, according a report by The Indian Express.

Of the seven gau rakshaks involved in the case, three have been arrested while four are still at large. One of the accused had reportedly been arrested earlier for killing a Dalit.

Both Dalits and Muslims had united in protest in Una, last month. Yet the Gujarat government chose to address only one community.

Activists suspect that the announcement may be a token to appease the Dalit movement. Until conviction rates rise, it will be too early to judge the veracity of the special courts.

The Polavaram project will submerge tribal rights

The Biju Janata Dal (BJD), Odisha’s ruling party, organised demonstrations across seven districts in south Odisha on September 20, against the upcoming Polavaram project in Andhra Pradesh, The Hindu reported. The BJD has also approached the Supreme Court against the project, demanding that the permissions given by the environment ministry and tribal affairs ministry be revoked.

While the Centre has pushed Polavaram as a national project for irrigation, opposition to the project has been based on claims that the dam will submerge 7,656 hectares of jungle and agricultural land displace more than 6,000 people in Odisha alone. The BJD plans to intensify their agitation against the project from October 1.

Another report suggests that nearly 10,000 acres of common property resources, crucial to the livelihood of adivasis, will be submerged. The report alleges that land for the project has been acquired by a direct violation of the Forest Rights Act, under which tribals are granted title deeds to hold land.

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If you know of any other incident we should highlight in this column, write to me at [email protected].