12 Mar 2021  |   04:50am IST

Beware – Big Brother is on the rampage

Beware – Big Brother is on the rampage

“Big Brother” has escalated from “watching” to going on a paranoid rampage. In contrast to the bull-in- a-China-shop sledge hammer approach of the Indira emergency, there appears to be method in the madness this time, starting with selective justice. 

No sedition charges were forthcoming when Kapil Mishra (by his own admission) and Anurag Thakur exhorted the mob to shoot traitors. Arnab Goswami’s bail application was super-fast tracked with a SC hearing even though in recess. Bail was granted, declaring that “every HC should exercise their jurisdiction to protect personal liberty”; otherwise “we are travelling on a path of destruction”. The very next day, the Meghalaya HC slapped criminal charges against Patricia Mukhima, a senior journalist, for her Facebook posts. There was Siddique Kappan, jailed under UAPA because he was on his way to report on the Hathras case and Munawar Faruqui a stand-up comedian arrested because of a joke he “planned to do”. A senior journalist who reported that the driver of a tractor which overturned had been shot in the head, was detained for sedition even though he shortly thereafter corrected himself and clarified that no shots had been fired. The game plan is: destroy dissent using the convoluted process of the law rather than the law itself. Arrest the critic under some vague charge of sedition and let the process wreck the victim’s life by unleashing the creaky, biased judicial system to do the damage and deny the person bail indefinitely.

Consider the cases of Rona Wilson and Stan Swamy, both activists detained under the UAPA. The “evidence” against them included a pen-drive containing documents copied from their laptops, allegedly containing incriminating letters addressed to poet activist Varavara Rao. Their lawyers sent the pen-drive to a highly reputed IT security company in the US called Arsenal Consulting. Their report was sent to three other companies for verification by the Washington Post which ran the story. All of them concurred that the “incriminating” documents had been inserted into the computers of the accused by hackers. The cybercrime cell of the MHA now calls for volunteers to register themselves to participate in a program starting on a trial basis in J&K and Tripura, to “identify, flag and report to the government illegal and unlawful content”. This would include “terrorism, radicalisation and anti-national activities”. Objections were instantaneous from legal and security experts because the vague term “anti-national” created a perfect opportunity for political vendetta or to settle personal scores. It opens a dangerous path reminiscent of the East German Stasi, the most despised organisation behind the erstwhile iron curtain, which created a culture of suspicion and hatred, where even family members reported on each other. Is this the future we will bequeath to our children? Apart from lacking statutory backing, the state abdicates its responsibility for law and order, placing a weapon in the hands of political goons, setting citizen against citizen. 

To facilitate such monitoring, the rules of the IT Act 2000 will be tweaked to force various apps to reveal within 72 hrs of requisition, the origin of any communication deemed to be offensive. This will force service providers to abandon their end-to-end encryption making all communications less secure. Word tracking automated tools are to be installed; amounting to “active hunting making suspects out of people” says privacy activist and lawyer Shreya Singhal. Use of tracking words programs can trigger off unwarranted complaints and is fundamentally dangerous. Instead of filing a police complaint against objectionable material, a board is set up to receive complaints from anyone, to be reviewed by administrators who may not have a judicial background. 

The courts have already struck down Section 66A of the IT Act by making a distinction between material that is “offensive and annoying” and that which incites violence. Justice Rana showed exemplary integrity with his poignant questions and devastating remarks in the course of dealing with the Disha Ravi case. “Is there any evidence?” he demanded. “A difference of opinion does not amount to sedition” and “If I prefer Kung Fu to Yoga does it mean I am a Chinese spy?” No surprise then, that 10938 cases of sedition have ended in only 3% convictions. 

Where is this heading? The UN recently took the unusual step of declaring June 21st “International Yoga Day” in recognition of Indian culture. In its’ 15th annual survey on global democratic backsliding, Freedom House, the Washington-based pro-democracy think tank and watchdog published a report on “a deepening long democratic recession”. It downgraded Indias’ ranking from “Free” to “Partly Free,” highlighting the PM’s role in increasing pressure on human rights groups, harassment of journalists and academics, marginalising religious minorities, particularly Muslims, and the politicising the Indian judiciary. “Under Modi, India appears to have abandoned its potential to serve as a global democratic leader, elevating narrow Hindu nationalist interests at the expense of its founding values of inclusion and equal rights for all.” The MoIB and MoEA furiously protested interference from anti-Indian “foreign hands”. There were no such protests over favourable QS World University Rankings. For that matter, Freedom House also dropped the US rankings by three points. 

 The concluding lines of Martin Niemöllers’ poem come to mind. “Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”

(The author is a founder member of VHAG)


Idhar Udhar