Justifying the government’s decision to stop Greenpeace activist Priya Pillai from travelling to London last month for a meeting of the British all-party parliamentary group, Additional Solicitor General Sanjay Jain drew an analogy to “doodh mein makkhi (fly in the milk)” to argue that the situation had “potential for mischief” against India’s economic interests.
Appearing before Justice Rajiv Shakdher in the Delhi High Court Wednesday, Jain claimed that diplomatic relations were “fluctuating” and existing good relations were no guarantee against “something undesirable” later.
“We are at least two decades behind advanced countries in the energy sector. The advanced countries may not be interested in our advancement,” Jain said, adding that Greenpeace International and Greenpeace India, which was Pillai’s “employer”, were “indulging in activities that impact our advancement in the energy sector”.
Pillai was stopped from flying to London on January 11 on the basis of a look-out-circular (LOC) issued by the Intelligence Bureau (IB). The government said “she had plans to testify on the alleged violations of forest rights of indigenous tribal people in the Mahan coal block area” of Madhya Pradesh.
Claiming that Pillai’s “testimony” on the tribal rights issues before the British parliamentary group would be a “one-sided view” that would be “taken as gospel truth there” to create documents which may be used for “any lobbying and movement for sanctions against India by the MPs”, Jain said that the “potential situation” was akin to a “doodh mein makkhi”.
This prompted Pillai’s counsel Indira Jaising to demand that the ASG “withdraw his statement” since he had “compared a citizen of India to a fly”. Jain replied that his statement was in reference to a situation and not a person.
Jain began his argument after Justice Shakdher wanted to know why was the government preventing a single citizen from speaking out on an issue. “The Indian state is not powerless. You have a plethora of trained diplomats doing a commendable job of protecting national interests. I don’t see how the state cannot meet the challenge posed,” he said.
The ASG said that action was taken to prevent a problematic situation. Justifying the restriction on Pillai’s travel as “reasonable restriction” in the “interest of national security”, Jain argued that “a potentially dangerous, distorted speech can do much more harm”. He said the restriction on Pillai’s travel was “only” with regard to this particular speech before a particular forum.
“If there is an undertaking that she will not make this speech before the MPs, then the LOC will be withdrawn. There is no general curtailment of her movement,” he said.
Pillai has refused to give any such undertaking. Jaising said the government offer amounted to “censorship” of her client’s fundamental rights. Speaking to the media outside the court room, Pillai also said she will not accept such a “gag offer”.
“I was exercising my fundamental right. This is not just about me but the right of every citizen of the country,” she said.
In detailed arguments put forward by Jaising, Pillai has claimed that her right to freedom of speech and expression was being curtailed by an unlawful order of the executive.
“This is an issue that goes to the heart of democracy. I have the right as a citizen of India to dissent,” Jaising said, adding that there was “no authority of law by virtue of which they have prevented” her client from “exercising fundamental rights.”
The ASG argued that the decision to off-load Pillai from an Air India flight on January 11 had been taken in accordance with law, under authority of an office memorandum issued by the Ministry of Home Affairs in 2011 which authorised agencies to issue LOCs against persons in “emergent situations” without prior notice.
The court is set to hear further arguments on behalf of Pillai on Thursday, and is likely to then pass an order.