Alluding to US Ambassador Richard Verma’s remark on “free speech” being “the hallmark of democracy both in India and the US”, Union Minister M Venkaiah Naidu, without taking names, hit back Thursday when he asked Lok Sabha if the US would “tolerate” any campus meeting on its soil to mark the “Osama bin Laden martyrdom anniversary”.
Earlier this week, at two meetings in New Delhi and Patna, Verma said free speech was a “central tenet” of what India and the US “hold dear”. Referring to alleged anti-national slogans raised at a JNU campus meeting on February 9, the day Parliament attack convict Afzal Guru was hanged three years ago, Naidu said India “cannot tolerate such activities in our universities” and “cannot allow our boys to be misled by such fringe elements who are inspired by foreign ideologies, who are inspired by foreign forces”.
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As the government came under attack over its alleged attempts to muzzle free speech in campuses, Naidu, intervening in the House debate on the motion of thanks to the President’s address, said: “Can they hold Osama bin Laden martyrdom anniversary in any university in America?… Let America say, ‘Osama, we are ashamed your killers roam free; USA shall be divided into pieces’, Allah willing, Insha Allah. If somebody says like that, is America going to tolerate this?’.”
“They may be a great nation with all the resources at their command. But at the same time, we Indians also have our self-pride. We are also concerned about the unity, integrity, security and sovereignty of our country,” he said.
“I would like to tell some of the countries who are giving us lessons, also saying that in India dissent is not allowed and all that. I would like to ask them one thing. Madam, I once went to the United States of America along with my OSD. My OSD was taken away and kept in quarantine for an hour. Then an inquiry was held for an hour. I could not do anything because we were outside the country. At the end of it, what came out was very simple. That boy had a beard, and that was the suspicion,” he said.
Naidu said if the US could take great precautions for its security, why could India not take action against those who raised slogans in favour of Pakistan and separatism.
“As a minister, I want to send this message that we cannot tolerate such activities in our universities. We cannot allow our boys to be misled by such fringe elements who are inspired by foreign ideologies, who are inspired by foreign forces,” he said.
He also said a Pakistani court had handed 10 years in jail to its citizen Umar Draz for praising Virat Kohli for his good cricket performance.
“The Pakistani court gave this punishment within 24 hours. When he sought bail on February 19, it was summarily dismissed. This is just for cricket, and not for any anti-Pakistan activity. Imagine what would have happened if a Pakistani had supported or praised an Indian martyr or soldier,” Naidu said.
Maintaining that freedom of expression should have a Lakshman Rekha, he said nobody has a right to express an opinion on an issue after the highest court of the land has given its verdict.
He took exception to former Home Minister P Chidambaram’s remarks on the Afzal Guru case. In an interview to The Economic Times published Thursday, Chidambaram was quoted as having said: “I think it is possible to hold an honest opinion that the Afzal Guru case was perhaps not correctly decided. But being in government you cannot say the court has decided the case wrongly because it was the government that prosecuted him. But an independent person can hold an opinion that the case was not decided correctly.”
Naidu said: “Nobody, after the highest court of the land has given its verdict, after an exhaustive procedure of giving reasonable time, opportunity and after the highest authority, the President of India, has given the final approval, has got the right to express such an opinion to create disaffection in society. You may think that there is nothing wrong. But I think it is totally wrong.”
He said the government allows freedom of speech. “Recently, one intellectual, in his column, predicted the death of Prime Minister Modi and even speculated who would become the next Prime Minister. This is the degree of freedom of speech existing in the country. We have not done anything and we will not do anything. We will leave it to his wisdom. Our Prime Minister is hale and healthy. He has no illness and he does not have to go for treatment inside or outside India,” he said.
Naidu also referred to an article written by sociologist Ashis Nandy after the 2007 Gujarat assembly elections. “This shows the degree of freedom of speech in this country. The same Ashis Nandy told the Supreme Court that he was ready to apologise unconditionally for an article he wrote in 2008,” he said.