Last week, Jammu and Kashmir’s draconian Public Safety Act (PSA) was slapped on two more former chief ministers, Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti, as well as half a dozen other state political leaders.
The charges against them, as revealed by the media, are clearly absurd and, in the case of Mufti, even vulgar. Omar Abdullah and Ali Mohammad Sagar, for example, are accused of being able to bring people out to vote “even at the height of militancy” (sic), which, the charges go on to say, gives them the capacity to incite protests against the voiding of Article 370. More shocking still, Mufti is called Daddy’s girl and Kota Rani (whose perfervid imagination applied those terms, I wonder?). In 2011, when our group of interlocutors wrote our report, we recommended the removal or amendment of the PSA. “The Act’s sweeping powers,” we said, “make it open to misuse”.
The main problems with the PSA, we found, were under Chapter IV (power to make orders detaining certain persons), Section 8 (detention of certain persons). This section provides a vast number of reasons for detention, ranging from “promoting, propagating, or attempting to create, feelings of enmity or hatred or disharmony on grounds of religion, race, caste, community, or region” to incitement, instigation, abetment and actual commission of such acts, and leaves it to district collectors or district magistrates to decide, giving a 12-day period within which an advisory board has to approve the detention.
Pointing out that the PSA does not distinguish between minor and major offences, allowing detention for up to one year for disturbance of public order and two years for actions “prejudicial to the security of the State”, we had argued that “the detention period should range from one week for minor offences to one month for major offences, but no longer. Assuming that actions ‘prejudicial to the security of the State’ constitute far graver offences, three months’ detention should be ample for proceeding to trial. Juveniles should not be held under the PSA at all.”
The Jammu and Kashmir Reorganisation Act, passed by Parliament last year, nullified over 150 state Acts but kept the PSA, which is more draconian than the all-India detention legislation, even the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act. Now that the state has become a union territory, why has the PSA not been brought in line with the all-India legislation?
Defending his administration’s unilateral actions of August 2019 in Parliament, the prime minister and most of his cabinet stated loudly and repeatedly that the voiding of Article 370 would bring in a new golden age in Jammu and Kashmir, including the extension of all rights under the Indian Constitution to the state. Six months on, detentions, denial and obstruction of communication continue, the state’s economy has lost thousands of crores, and now we are told that the state’s top political leaders are a threat to security on the basis of unfounded allegations.
This too the PM defended last week in Parliament, asking members rhetorically if they could accept Abdullah’s alleged statement that the voiding of Article 370 would be an earthquake dividing the state from India (the statement was taken from a satirical fake news site). To their shame, the bulk of our MPs thumped “no”. Even had the statement not been fake, the prediction of calamity ensuing from an action is not a crime of any sort. If it was then we would have jailed all the astrologers of India, including those consulted by our politicians. Or is that to come too?
There is a stark contrast between the PSA against Abdullah and Mufti on the one hand and, on the other, the Narendra Modi administration’s complacence when its own ministers and MPs make incendiary statements accusing critics of being terrorists and calling for violence. Admittedly, successive governments have suspected the political leaders of J&K, starting with the arrest of Sheikh Abdullah, but after that fateful period no chief minister has been detained, let alone under the PSA.
Sadly, the enormity of detaining chief ministers and almost the entire legislature of a state was marked by only token protests in Parliament and the rest of India. Perhaps it is our just deserts, certainly it is ironic, that what used to be a special dilution of law for “disturbed areas” such as Jammu and Kashmir now appears to extend across the country. Students are accused of sedition, as are citizens protesting the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). A comedian has been banned by several airlines, against the advice of the concerned pilot but on a tweet by the aviation minister. School children are being interrogated and a school principal arrested for a play criticising the CAA. And these are only a few instances of the daily acts of state suppression of dissent in our country.
The message from our current government is clear: Any dissent — even that which is only suggested — will be harshly punished. Yet dissent is the lifeblood of any democracy, as our Constitution and courts underline (the latter rather selectively, alas).
Alarmingly, the institutions that should act as a check on the executive are in retreat. Parliament barely debates legislation brought by the Modi administration and the Opposition appears unable to unite even to amend. The courts are divided: While some judges, as in the Gauhati and Delhi high courts, have upheld the right to dissent, the Supreme Court has taken note of one baby’s tragic death at Shaheen Bagh, which should have been prevented, to ask whether all parents should be prevented from bringing children to protest sites. The President, who could have checked the governor’s abuse of power in J&K, and who surely knew better of Gandhi’s views than to allow the inclusion of a statement that the CAA fulfilled Gandhi’s dream in his address to Parliament, did not intervene.
The Modi administration has now labelled dissent as sedition in J&K. Its supporters have followed suit by extending the label to all dissent in our country. With over four years to go under this administration, will anyone dare to dissent by the time our next election comes along? From Jammu and Kashmir to the rest of India, the darkness continues to grow.
This article first appeared in the print edition on February 11, 2020 under the title ‘Dissent as sedition’. Kumar’s latest book is Paradise at War: A Political History of Kashmir (Aleph:2019).