EARLIER this week, the Washington Post ran a scathing editorial that can only be termed a damning indictment of the government of India. It is nobody’s case that the grandees of American journalism have a monopoly on wisdom or are the sole torchbearers of truth. In fact, many of them chose to ignore the millions, who were killed, raped, maimed and driven out of their homes by the Pakistan Army in the then East Pakistan during the 1971 Bangladesh liberation struggle simply because it suited the interests of the Nixon government, which was using the Pakistan Army to gain access to the Chinese leadership. But a truly free press ought to look beyond the proximate domestic or foreign policy interests of those in power and hold them to account. It is in this context the Post editorial on Disha Ravi’s arrest assumes immense significance.
Disha Ravi’s arrest for editing a Google Document was an appalling act of crossing the line of democratic decency.
Disha Ravi is a 22-year-old woman, and at best can be described as a young idealist out to change this world. Can India afford not to have Disha Ravis? Rajguru was only 22 and Bhagat Singh and Sukhdev 23 when they were hanged for idealism of the revolutionary variety. Disha Ravi’s arrest for editing a Google Document was an appalling act of crossing the line of democratic decency and deservedly, the government has invited global opprobrium. This too could be brazened out, no doubt, but only at the cost of getting our national image sullied all across the world. That, obviously, cannot be our government’s foreign policy objective.
Disha Ravi’s case was a cause célèbre because of her association with globally acclaimed climate change activist Greta Thunberg. Yet, she had to spend 10 days in custody till Additional Sessions Judge Dharmender Rana finally granted her bail, pointing at the ‘scanty and sketchy evidence’ produced against her by the Delhi Police. Any activist, or for that matter any journalist, in the normal course of work gets acquainted or even linked up with extremist elements without really knowing or participating in any of their extremist activities. As a journalist, I had the occasion to meet up with top Maoist leaders in metropolitan cities and the jungles of Bastar, but that professional engagement does not imply any kind of involvement in their violent, criminal activities.
Empathy for the less privileged and a suspicion of the establishment are the hallmarks of genuine youthful idealism that burns itself to light up and change the world. Many perish in this enterprise and many others get battered by worldly-wise opportunists all around and become cynics for life. This is the normal process of evolution of an idealist and the police should not step in unless these youngsters take up arms. An all-knowing, paternalistic State is an oppressive presence in the lives of younger people trying to find their feet in the shifting sands of political or ideological discovery. Their truisms at 22 need not be the be-all and end-all of their pursuit. Then, for the State to march in and bludgeon non-violent and harmless activists like Disha Ravi into silence is the most counterproductive process that can be conceived; they just need to be told about the lurking dangers of getting used by vested interests.
The Disha Ravi case ought to be the last embarrassing instance of our government refusing to sort the wheat from the chaff while invoking draconian, colonial-era provisions like the sedition law. Any wide-eyed youngster would want to get associated with a Malala Yousafzai or a Greta Thunberg, or other activists, writers, singers and performers of international repute. That in itself should not be declared seditious; in the eyes of the world, when harassed, these young activists would only be counted as victims. And that is where the government seems to have lost the plot. Sure, there are elements within and outside the country trying hard to create disaffection or to hijack local protests like the farmers’ movement against the farm laws. But it is the responsibility of the law-enforcing agencies to understand and differentiate between foreign-funded agent provocateurs and romantics. The lack of this distinction destroys the credibility of the government agencies, and by extension even the country’s institutions.
The ‘foreign destructive ideology’ that the Prime Minister referred to in Parliament sounds similar to Indira Gandhi’s ‘foreign hand’ theory, which she had repeatedly used to justify the clampdown on the Opposition during the 1970s. It is interesting to note that in those dark days of the Emergency, it was the Western press and its democratic institutions that took up the cause of the jailed Opposition, including members of the RSS and the Jan Sangh. Now, in a globally connected world, there is no escape from all-round attacks —some genuine, many motivated. The way out cannot be charges of sedition, for the result is that the government’s critics are tarring the entire society with the same brush. For instance, the Post has claimed that the government has “intimidated much of the mainstream media into self-censorship”. Does the government want the world to believe that the Indian media has succumbed to self-censorship?
The new guidelines for digital platforms can also lead to similar accusations. Already, advocacy groups have cried foul, insisting that the Information Technology Act is being ‘unconstitutionally’ used to ‘censor’ news portals and that the entire exercise is opaque without public consultation. Some of them may move the court against the Information Technology (Guidelines for Intermediaries and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021, but it has already triggered a storm of discontent. If only like Australia, our government had taken on Big Tech on behalf of the small Indian news content creators, the new rules would have been welcomed by one and all. Now, it seems to be only an attempt to regulate without protecting the interests of the news media. There lies the difference between the two media codes.