On 30th January, 2021, we mark the 73rd anniversary of the very date when Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated by someone who did not share his vision of an inclusive and plural India. The PUCL would like to mark this important date by remembering the values which Gandhiji stood for which are under threat today.
We want to remember a Gandhiji which the current establishment would rather forget, namely someone who was deeply committed to the ideal of ‘political freedom’ which was not just ‘freedom from the British’ but a commitment to fundamental values and principles. For Gandhiji, “Civil liberties consistent with the observance of non-violence are the first step towards Swaraj. It is the breath of political and social life. It is the foundation of freedom. There is no room there for dilution or compromise. It is the water of life”.
It is this commitment to civil liberties which we need to uphold in the contemporary context. An essential dimension of civil liberties is the freedom of speech, expression and association- all of which are under attack today. We live in an egg shell democracy where ‘hurt sentiments of a community’ as well as state intolerance of criticism are reasons to shut down speech.
The words of Gandhiji give us a sense of moral clarity on how we should approach this question of a state and community quick to take offence to speech they consider ‘offensive’ or ‘seditious’. As Gandhiji put it:
“Liberty of speech means that it is unassailed even when the speech hurts; liberty of the press can be said to be truly respected only when the press can comment in the severest terms upon and even misrepresent matters…. Freedom of association is truly respected when assemblies of people can discuss even revolutionary projects”.
This commitment to speech as form of truth telling to the state, where the individual lays bare the injustices of the state is best seen in the famous Ahmedabad trial when Gandhiji was prosecuted for sedition. Gandiji had written a series of articles lambasting the colonial state making the case that, ‘We are challenging the might of this Government because we consider its activity to be wholly evil. We want to overthrow the Government. We want to compel its submission to the peoples will. We desire to show that the Government exists to serve the people, not the people the government”.
For this writing Gandhiji was prosecuted under Sec. 124-A IPC, for sedition, which under law is ‘exciting disaffection against the state’. Gandhiji’s response in Court was to plead guilty and make a statement which challenges the sedition law under which he was prosecuted. He says:
“Section 124-A under which I am happily charged is perhaps the prince among the political sections of the Indian Penal Code designed to suppress the liberty of the citizen. Affection cannot be manufactured or regulated by law. If one has no affection for a person or system, one should be free to give the fullest expression to his disaffection, so long as he does not contemplate, promote or incite violence… But I hold it to be a virtue to be disaffected towards a Government which in its totality had done more harm to India than any previous system”.
One hopes that the message of Gandhiji resonates far and wide, reaching the ears of those in power that ‘affection cannot be manufactured by law’ and that if the citizen has ‘no affection’ towards the state, she must be free to give vent to that ‘disaffection’ as long the expression is non-violent.
Another aspect of Gandhiji we wish to remember is that when the British enacted the Rowlatt Act which authorized preventive detention and denied detainees the right to legal representation, Gandhiji was outraged. He began the nationwide civil disobedience movement to repeal the draconian Rowlatt Act as according to Gandhiji the state had no right to lock up its opponents without trial and without legal representation.
Today we have in place a law which in every way parallels the Rowlatt Act, namely the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA). The state has used it as a tool to detain its critics as seen by the arbitrary and malicious arrest of sixteen human rights activists in the Bhima Koregaon incident as well as the continued detention of the constitutionally minded and democratically committed anti- CAA activists as well as human rights activists in all parts of the country including Kashmir. The state has more recently invoked these provisions against the farmers who are protesting against the farm laws as well. In short, the message is clear. Opponents of the state will be targeted with the draconian UAPA.
Those arrested have not been released on bail and some of them have spent over two years and more in jail. Remembering Gandhiji today is to commit ourselves to fighting against this unjust law and demanding `repeal of the UAPA’ and the release of those unjustly incarcerated.
Finally, in remembering Gandhiji we would not like to forget that Gandhiji was not just a brave freedom fighter with an indomitable commitment to the basic freedoms which define what it is to be human, namely the freedom to think, the freedom to protest and the freedom to worship, but also a human being with an impish sense of humour.
Sarojini Naidu jokingly called him ‘Mickey Mouse’ because of the way his ears stuck out and he himself was not averse to cracking jokes. When he met King George V and a reporter reputedly asked him why he had so little clothes on, Gandhi is said to have remarked, ‘The King has enough clothes on for both of us’.
Why we would like to remember the mischievous Gandhiji especially today is because, Munawar Farooqui, a young comedian from Gandhiji’s own state, languishes in jail because he dares to crack jokes at the current political establishment. Ironically Munawar was arrested by the MP police for a comedy programme which did not even take place! The dark tragedy of the police abuse of law is mirrored by the High Court refusal of bail on the ground that no one can be permitted to offend religious sentiments, unmindful of the fact that the alleged offensive statements had not been made. It is a sad commentary of our democracy that today comedians of all stripes and hues find themselves under unprecedented attack as the state has lost its sense of humour and comedy is criminalised.
We would like to commemorate the values Gandhi stood for by demanding that the state
· Repeal the UAPA
· Release all those falsely arrested under UAPA
· Stop using UAPA as a tool of harassment
· Respect the constitutional right to freedom of speech and expression
· Develop a sense of humour
Dr. V. Suresh, General Secretary, PUCL
on behalf of PUCL, #StandWithStan and over a hundred organizations and #REPEALUAPA