Updated: August 26, 2015 12:04:25 am
Records accessed by this newspaper under the Right to Information Act have revealed that Gujarat Governor O.P. Kohli has given an oral order that any civil society group that wishes to rent the Mehdi Nawaz Jung Hall, a property in Ahmedabad under the custody of a trust headed by the governor, needs to give a written undertaking that it will not indulge in any anti-government activity on the premises — “any political activity or any activity against the government” is to be out of bounds. The decision is anti-democratic. It shows in poor light the high office of the governor, the de jure head of the state, who is bound by oath to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution and the law”.
The Constitution guarantees the citizen’s fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression, assembly and association. The right to oppose the government and to protest against it is part of this constitutionally assured freedom. The government cannot restrict or curb these rights except in exceptional circumstances, which are also constitutionally defined. Surely Kohli is not suggesting that such a circumstance, which calls for the abrogation of citizens’ constitutional freedoms, obtains in Gujarat today? Kohli, who has had a long innings in politics as a BJP leader and who went to prison during the Emergency, is unlikely to be unaware of the imperative to protect civil liberties from encroachment by the state. By all accounts, the hall in question has hosted political meetings and documentary screenings, including those on the 2002 riots in the state. The riot-hit have spoken out here and it has been hospitable to civil rights organisations pressing for greater governmental accountability. In a robust democracy, it is necessary to enlarge and multiply such spaces, instead of seeking to banish “politics” from them.
Kohli is making a bid to cast himself in the role of the protector of the government of the day. He must remind himself that his office enjoins him, instead, to be the guardian of the Constitution in the state.
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