Monday, March 30, 2015

R K Misra on the Modi government and free speech - Legal leash: Rat In, Cat Out

Tallest trees dread thunder the most. No wonder personal freedom is anathema to the power placed. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is no different. As Chief Minister of Gujarat, he was ever ready to stick a knife into anything remotely resembling a Sonia-Singh led Centre. Now sitting in the hot seat himself, with a majority to match, he is no better than his predecessors. Actually he is worse.

Fast on the ‘tweetstake’ opposing section 66A of the Information and Technology Act brought in by the UPA  in 2006 and  passed December 22, 2008, the BJP (read Modi, for he decides) when in power did a complete U-turn. Challenged in the Supreme Court by a 24-year-old Shreya Singhal, the Modi government  favoured  retaining the Section. A stunning slap from the Supreme Court later, both the Congress and the BJP now sit red-faced, dishing out lame duck laments. The offensive piece of legislation, which authorised police to make arrests for any social media posts it deemed offensive, has been struck down. 

A Goan gentleman who had posted a Facebook comment against Modi last year was hauled over the coals by the cops after one of his highly placed sympathisers lodged a police complaint under the Act. There have been numerous other similar cases to curb dissent in Gujarat where speaking against Modi was treated as a statement against Gujarat by official organs of the state.

Modi’s men, however, are back at work. While attention stands riveted to Delhi and the dust kicked up by the Land Acquisition Bill refuses to settle down, in his own homeland Gujarat, a determined attempt is on to impose another draconian law, which truly invites comparisons to the Emergency era. A legacy of Modi rule in Gujarat, the Gujarat Control of Organised Crime (GUJCOC) Act, which was twice rejected by successive Presidents of the Indian Union, has now been tabled in the Gujarat Assembly in a new avtaar. It is called the Gujarat Control of Terrorism and Organised Crime (GCTOC) Bill 2015. The Modi government in Gujarat had to eat crow when GUJCOC twice passed by the state Assembly was returned by one President after another. 

All acts of the over a decade-long Modi era in Gujarat — good, bad or ugly — are sought to be revisited again, this time  with a vengeance, now that he rules India. This proposed legislation in question is all encompassing in its sweep, and arms the police with unbridled powers to tap personal phones without permission and detain people without following standard procedures.

A man is known by his deeds and the present Prime Minister’s past battles against Indira Gandhi- imposed curbs notwithstanding, the record does not portend well for the future. As was the precedent during the Modi rule in Gujarat, all contentious issues were brought up on the last day and neatly pushed through after a protesting Opposition had been ordered out. So was it this time as well. The GCTOC bill will be taken up on the last day of the ongoing Budget session, March 31. 

The Bill, which has a provision for death penalty and fine of Rs 10 lakh empowers phone intercepts and its admissibility as evidence in courts. Same applies to confessions extracted by the police. Most importantly, it upturns the law to put the onus of proving one’s innocence on the accused. “The Special Courts shall presume, unless it is proven to the contrary, that the accused has committed such offence”, the Bill states. The statement of Objects and Reasons says, “It was considered necessary to enact a special law with stringent provisions, including the power to intercept wire, electronic or oral communication.” Did the draconian laws enacted during the Emergency, which the BJP fought tooth and nail, not say the same? Then where is the dividing line between the oppressor and the oppressed?  Is it only a role reversal?

The GUJCOC Bill, which came up post 2002 Godhra train carnage and communal riots, was passed by the state Assembly in 2004 during the Modi rule. He needed a powerful tool to curb and control dissent unrestrained, more so after POTA. It was, however, returned by President APJ Abdul Kalam who had objected to clause 14 pertaining to interception of communication and ordered it to be removed. In 2008, the Bill was again passed by the state Assembly after removing the clause, but retaining the clause for confessions before police as admissible evidence. 

In 2008, President Pratibha Patil returned the Bill. In 2009, Modi again passed the Bill ignoring the suggestions made by the President and the matter awaits his decision. Meanwhile, choosing not to let sleeping dogs lie, Gujarat Chief Minister Anandiben Patel, without any provocation, has suddenly woken up to bring in an amended Bill in the state Assembly. It brings back the bulk of the clauses deleted earlier. This defiance of authority is a hallmark of the Modi style. Ironically, he himself has no stomach for disagreement, let alone defiance. Would Chief Minister Anandiben Patel have the courage to bring back the Bill without a tacit nod from the top? Unlikely.

GUJCOC was sought to be enacted after the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act(POTA) enacted by the NDA government in 2002 was repealed by the  UPA government immediately after coming to power in 2004.POTA itself had replaced an earlier  anti-terrorism law known as the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities(Prevention) Act-TADA- which was allowed to lapse by the PV Narasimha Rao government in 1995.

Misuse of draconian laws is a time tested tradition, not that the lack of it has ever been any hindrance. In just the first three months of 2013, the Gujarat Police had obtained 90,000 telephone call data records (CDRs) of people and entities — in most cases, without citing any reason. The filth had hit the fan when it was realised that the cops were snooping over fellow cops and other senior administration officials and the wing clipping exercise began thereafter. Gujarat Director General of Police, Amitabh Pathak who accidentally stumbled upon this information and sought to curb it, suddenly passed away while holidaying abroad. That some of these cops  who did the dirty chores are now being rewarded with top postings in central surveillance and investigation agencies in Delhi, is however, a different matter altogether.

Modi rule in Gujarat is littered with examples when even the Sangh Parivar leaders were not spared. Ashwin Patel, general secretary of the Ahmedabad VHP, was picked up on Diwali eve October 29, 2008 and charged with defamation, sedition, anti-national activities and inciting communal passions. Patel who was considered close to VHP leader Pravin Togadia had been a marked man ever since he led the SMS campaign against Modi in the aftermath of LK Advani’s visit to Mohammed Ali Jinnah’s mazar in 2005 and the Chief Minister’s support to him during the ruckus kicked up over the issue. Ashwin spent an extended time in jail before he was finally bailed out after VHP veteran Ashok Singhal intervened. With Modi in the driver’s seat in Delhi and his one-time police minister, Amit Shah, now the national party chief, the other members of the inner core are gradually being fitted into key positions in the mosaic of the national administration. It would be interesting to watch as the political chess game unfolds.