On September 21, former Bigg Boss contestant Payal Rohatgi — who has often courted controversy on social media through ill-informed and prejudiced posts — shared a video in which she made unseemly and unsubstantiated personal remarks about the Nehru-Gandhi family, going back to Motilal Nehru and Kamala Nehru. Earlier this week, Rohatgi was remanded to nine days in judicial custody under Sections 66 and 67 of the IT Act by a court in Bundi in Congress-ruled Rajasthan — she has subsequently got bail. The case against her was filed by Charmesh Sharma, a Youth Congress leader in the state. There is little that is defensible in the content of Rohatgi’s video. And yet, for all those who claim to uphold liberal values — as the Congress so loudly does — her right to free speech must be respected.
In Parliament, in election rallies and at public meetings, the senior leadership of the Congress, including party president Sonia Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi and Rajasthan Deputy Chief Minister Sachin Pilot, have accused the Narendra Modi government of stifling dissent, and creating an atmosphere of fear. For this accusation to ring credible, however, the Congress can ill afford to be seen to conspicuously falter on that very yardstick in the states where it holds office. The fact is, the Congress does not have a creditable record on matters of free speech. But the Rohatgi episode only serves to draw unflattering attention to this reality even as the Congress in the state, and in the country, takes on the BJP regime’s evident intolerance of dissent and disagreement. There are many in the ruling party and Union government who have sought to stifle dissent by using the law — including the IT Act and Section 124a of the IPC (sedition law) — claiming offence either to religious or “nationalist” sentiments. In a liberal, plural society, speech acts, no matter how uncomfortable they make some people, should not be deemed criminal unless they can be proved to directly incite violence. While the Constitution does allow for “reasonable restrictions” to free speech, the state must not wield the tedium of the legal process as a punishment against those that offend it.
The filing of a case under the IT Act against Rohatgi and her detention violate these principles. Nine days in custody for a video, however reprehensible, is nine days too many. There was only one reasonable action against her tasteless diatribe. Ignore it.
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