Perhaps the most disorienting experience a citizen can have is when the State moves to undercut his fundamental rights instead of protecting them. It attacks the basic assumptions that he uses to orient himself in a democratic society. The Kafkaesque situation journalist and Jawaharlal Nehru University PhD student Sheeba Aslam Fehmi currently finds herself embroiled in illustrates this amply. And it points to two major issues that have cropped up repeatedly over the past few years: a strand of intolerance running through the Indian polity and establishment that sees freedom of expression as bounded by arbitrary limits, and, linked to this, a failure to come to grips with the manner in which the spread of Internet access gives the common man the ability to have a public voice.
In 2011, Fehmi received several threatening emails from Pankaj Kumar Dwivedi with regard to her anti-Narendra Modi Facebook posts. Among other things, Dwivedi warned her to stop posting or face the consequences, and demanded to meet her in person in order to “clean off all the filth and dirt from [her] mind”; he also made it clear that he knew she was at JNU. Understandably alarmed at the stalking, Fehmi filed an FIR. The police arrested Dwivedi and charged him under Section 66 (A) of the IT Act 2008 — a draconian piece of legislation and a problem in itself — without Fehmi’s knowledge. Fast-forward to 2013, and Metropolitan Magistrate RK Pandey has thrown out the charges against Dwivedi — and then, bizarrely, proceeded to initiate criminal proceedings against her. His reasoning for doing so is implicit in his statement on dismissing the charges against Dwivedi where he characterises Fehmi’s Facebook posts as “anti-national sentiments” and “anti-establishment words”.
The implications are alarming. The comments for which Fehmi is being hauled up include criticisms of Modi, of the patriarchal mindset inherent in traditions such as karva chauth, and the right-wing bias of the Jan Lokpal movement. Thus, a member of the judiciary — the prime protector of citizen’s rights — seems to have arbitrarily decided that certain entities are sacrosanct; that to express an opinion about them is to show oneself to be a threat to the State.
Adding to the hypocrisy is the fact that when exonerating Dwivedi, Pandey held that his comments were protected under his fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression. Fair enough.
But the same yardstick plainly doesn’t apply to Fehmi — not when she has been charged under Sections 153 (A), 153 (B) and 295 (A) of the Indian Penal Code, accusing her of deliberate, malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings and promote enmity between different groups.
This is, of course, not the first time the establishment has attempted to muzzle a citizen. The UPA government’s attempts to pre-screen and censor user content posted to social media sites; the two girls arrested in Palghar for posting to Facebook about the shutdown after Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray’s death; Mamata Banerjee’s jailing of a professor for forwarding cartoons about her — the list goes on. This is simply not sustainable. The state must learn that at a time when the Internet is empowering citizens, moving in the opposite direction is doomed to failure.
As for the charges against Fehmi — as Samuel Johnson put it so pithily, patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.