Free Speech Tightrope: Guj arrests highlight State's struggle with dissent
Ahmedabad, Nov 4 : In the shadow of political sensitivity, Gujarat has recently witnessed intolerance towards criticism that resonates with the broader national trend of shrinking spaces for dissent. Two such incidents involving prominent political figures underscore the effects on freedom of expression.
In late December 2022, Saket Gokhale, a Trinamool Congress leader found himself in the crosshairs of the Gujarat Police. His detention was linked to a tweet concerning an unverified piece of news about Prime Minister Narendra Modi's visit to the site of the Morbi bridge collapse targedy. Gokhale, arrested in Jaipur, was brought to Gujarat by the Ahmedabad Cyber Crime Cell under the supervision of ACP Jitendra Yadav.
A similar fate befell Congress MLA Jignesh Mevani, who was apprehended by Assam Police and taken to Guwahati. His crime? An alleged "offensive" tweet against the Prime Minister. This arrest highlighted the reality of political figures facing legal consequences for their online expressions.
Continuing from the previously reported instances of intolerance in Gujarat, another episode unfolded in September 2020 that further demonstrates the precarious state of free expression in the region. Journalist Aakar Patel found himself under arrest by Gujarat Police due to posts made on X, which were deemed offensive against a community.
Patel, who was granted anticipatory bail, found himself in a legal tangle following a complaint lodged by BJP MLA Purnesh Ishwarbhai Modi, who, apart from his political affiliation, is recognised as a social worker and the head of the Modh-Modi community in Gujarat.
The allegations against Patel were severe. He was accused of intentionally stirring up communal disharmony through his tweets and of defaming the Hindu-Ghanchi community, which also happens to be the community of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The FIR against Patel cites a series of tweets that ostensibly provoked hostility and painted the BJP and RSS as beneficiaries of violence, particularly against Muslims.
The specifics of Patel's tweets, from referencing the Prime Minister's caste designation to commenting on the Godhra train burning incident, were met with an aggressive legal response. The journalist's arrest and subsequent questioning for over six hours underscore the intensifying clampdown on social media expression that pushes the boundaries of political and communal discourse.
These cases, each with its narrative and resolution, illustrate a trend in Gujarat that resonates with a larger narrative of political hypersensitivity and the consequent suppression of critique.
The arrests of Gokhale, Mevani, and Patel are not just legal actions against individuals, they represent a growing sense of unease among those who wish to voice their opinions in a state increasingly characterised by its surveillance infrastructure and political partisanship.
These cases are not isolated but reflect a broader pattern of fear among Gujarat's populace regarding the expression of political or social opinions online.
A staggering 33 per cent Gujaratis have expressed extreme apprehension about possible legal action against them, as per the 'Status of Policing in India Report 2023', a study conducted by Common Cause and Lokniti, CSDS.
While Gujarat's inhabitants have shown support for government surveillance to suppress political upheaval, they simultaneously harbour a deep-seated fear of repercussions for online speech. With a third of respondents confessing to being very scared, the climate of fear is palpable.
Mahashweta Jani, Gujarat's coordinator of 'Lokniti', remarked on the findings, highlighting that the prolonged dominance of a single party in the state naturally brews an atmosphere of surveillance and fear, stifling the public's willingness to voice political opinions.