In a critique of the present political scenario, former Delhi high court chief justice A P Shah has said that Indians are forced to stand up for the national anthem and told what they can or cannot eat, see or speak about. He added that dissent in the country’s universities is curbed and “sloganeering and flag raising have become tests for nationalism”.
Speaking at the MN Roy memorial lecture in Delhi, Shah mentioned, without naming her, the online abuse Gurmehar Kaur faced for her views. He said that the country’s institutions of learning “are under attack” and there is a “concerted attempt to destroy any independent thought”. Shah added that in the present times “sadly if anyone holds any view that differs from the government’s acceptable view, they are immediately dubbed as anti-national or desh-drohi’’. Shah said that these markers are used to intimidate and “browbeat voices of dissent and criticism, and more worryingly, can be used to slap criminal charges of sedition against them’’.
He compared ideas of VD Savarkar with those of Rabindranath Tagore about nationalism and how they viewed India. Shah said that India being a diverse country, people must respect the diversity of ideas. “We must respect these differences, not silence those who hold a different view on nationalism and patriotism for the country.” He added that promoting just one perspective; “one that idolises the nation and staunchly rejects any internal or external criticism” will only polarise citizens against each other.
Shah said that it is important to ask the question whether the country is just territory or if it comprises people. “Is being anti-national equivalent to being anti-government or is the hallmark of an anti-national that they are against the interest of the people, especially the minorities and the depressed classes?” Shah asked. “Our right to free speech and expression is not a gift or a privilege that the government bestows on us. It is our right, guaranteed by the Constitution of India, and won after decades of struggle and sacrifice by the people of India.” He said that India was not founded on the basis of religion unlike Pakistan.
He said that free speech is under attack in the country and even the courts have failed to protect it. Shah cited the Supreme Court’s recent judgment upholding the legality of criminal defamation and the order to make it mandatory for movie theaters to play the national anthem.
He said that even sections of the media through “biased and one-sided reporting’’ have aided the restriction on free speech. Shah added that one news channel “airs false and doctored footage, while others openly flame the fans of this patriotism and anti-national debate”.
Shah said that it is ironic that the media, which played a critical role in asserting its right to free speech during and after the Emergency, is now the institution that is compromising and challenging the same freedom of dissenters.