Updated: February 19, 2015 12:00:56 am
In the matter of the deplaning of Greenpeace activist Priya Pillai, the affidavit of the ministry of home affairs in the Delhi High Court has accomplished what little remained to be done to make India look small, and ignorant too. Pillai was restrained from travelling to the UK in the “national interest”, to prevent her from speaking with British parliamentarians about the impact of industry on tribal rights. The deplaning could not interrupt the conversation, which continued smoothly over the internet. The ham-fisted move backfired and drew attention to the very issue that the government didn’t want discussed.
Now, in its affidavit justifying the action, the MHA has made paranoid claims about the existence of shadowy “instruments of control” which may be used to thwart India’s debut on the global stage — literature generated by NGOs and foreign powers detailing the indifferent assurance of some constitutional rights in India. Ominous warnings about India being exposed to sanctions like North Korea and Iran are beyond laughable. The abuse of rights invites opprobrium, as it should, not sanctions. The document gives away the anxieties of its drafters by harping on violations of religious freedoms in India, which is certainly not what Pillai was travelling to speak about. Indeed, the government is still smarting from the US president’s speech mentioning the need to contain communalism, which he delivered immediately after a visit to Delhi that was perceived as a watershed in Indo-US relations.
The government should now cease to embarrass itself over Greenpeace and learn from the experience. After this, perhaps, its officers will not entertain the peculiar belief that in a highly networked world, physical restraint can sunder communications. If it has anxieties about being penalised for failing to defend the rights of its citizens, the obvious remedy is to be seen to defend them. This week, the prime minister has broken a brittle silence that lasted far too long — while various children of the Sangh Parivar were abominably badly behaved — and sought to reassure religious minorities. Speech is the foremost instrument of democracy. If the government fears “instruments of control”, it must counter them with its own advocacy. Trying to silence them is futile and can only lead to embarrassment.
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