Under siege: 9 major instances of assault on free speech during Modi's rule
Today, 25 June, marks 41 years of the imposition of Emergency. That dark chapter in India's history is remembered, and often presented as a warning, for the unprecedented clampdown on civil liberties, but what is ignored is that the country's record on this front in the four decades since is far from blemish-free.
Freedom of speech and expression has been frequently trampled whenever it has fallen on the wrong side of the people in power, or even the conservative elements in our society.
The assault on freedom of expression, however, has intensified since the Narendra Modi regime came to power two years ago. It's not just that this government has gone after "dissenters", the atmosphere it has created in the process has equally contributed to stifling free speech -- as was recently evident when a harmless spoof video shared by the comic-artist Tanmay Bhatt kicked up a storm.
Here are the major instances:
Udta Punjab censorship: Early this month, the Censor Board suggested 89 cuts in this film on the drug problem in Punjab, including the removal of all references to 'Punjab'. The political link was clear since Punjab is ruled by the NDA and goes to the assembly polls early next year. It was only after the Bombay High Court intervened that the film was released, with just one cut.
Tanmay Bhat's spoof video: In May, the Tanmay Bhat drew a barrage of vitriol for a spoof video he had created and shared on Snapchat. It showed a mock conversation between Sachin Tendulkar and Lata Mangeshka on who between Tendulkar and Virat Kohli was the better batsman. The lampooning of the cricketer and the singer sparked a huge uproar online and offline, with political parties like BJP, Shiv Sena and MNS demanding action against him.
JNU crackdown: In February, at a protest programme at Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University, slogans were raised allegedly against the hanging of Afzal Guru. The BJP's student wing Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad protested, and the issue soon turned into a full-blown political battle, which reached the Parliament. Eventually, JNU Students Union president Kanhaiya Kumar and two other students Umar Khalid and Anirban Bhattacharya were arrested. The JNU also suspended them.
Ban on film on homosexuality: In March 2015, the CBFC refused to clear for release a film on homosexuality called Unfreedom.
Cases against AIB Roast: Tanmay Bhatt had previously landed in trouble after his comedy collective, AIB, did a show in Mumbai in December 2014. Many people felt "offended" by the jokes and the language used at the show, which was later uploaded to YouTube. Five PILs were filed against the AIB and the organisers of the show.
Deplaning of Greenpeace activist: Priya Pillai was offloaded from a flight at the Delhi airport, allegedly on the instructions of the Intelligence Bureau. She was on leaving to London to make a presentation to British MPs about alleged human rights violations in Madhya Pradesh. A proposed coal mining project is reportedly threatening to uproot local communities in the state's Mahan region.
Attempted arrest of Teesta Setalvad: Had the Bombay High Court not granted them anticipatory, Teesta Setalvad and her husband Javed Anand would have been arrested, in August 2015, for threatening the sovereignty of India. They were facing charges of receiving foreign funds for their NGO without the government's approval as well as for embezzle of some of the funds. However, in court, no less than the Modi government's Additional Solicitor General argued that the couple had "criminal antecedents", their trust acted like an "agent" in India for the US-based Ford Foundation and their acts were a "threat to the sovereignty of the nation and its secular democracy".
Arrest of folk singer: In October 2015, Tamil Nadu police arrested singer S Kovan for singing songs criticising the state government. He was arrested on sedition charges.
Arrest of MP youth: In March this year, two young men were jailed in Madhya Pradesh for sharing online a morphed image of RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat. They were charged under Section 67 of the IT Act, which relates to the publishing of obscene material in electronic form and 505(2) of the IPC, which punishes statements "creating or promoting enmity, hatred or ill-will between classes".