PUCL condemns the arbitrary travel bans on Rana Ayyub and Aakar Patel, prominent critics of the Government.
On 6th April, 2022, Aakar Patel, well known human rights activist and journalist, was prevented by Immigration authorities in Bengaluru airport from catching a flight to the US and forced to turn back. Aakar Patel was on his way to speak at various universities in the US. The basis of the denial to fly out of the country was a “Look-Out Circular” allegedly issued by the CBI.
PUCL strongly condemns the actions of the Government of India to arbitrarily and capriciously abuse its power to detain or block prominent and well known persons like Aakar Patel just at the time when they are about to leave for scheduled visits abroad, details of which have been informed to the authorities.
What exposes the sinister and motivated act of the Government of India is that Aakar Patel was travelling abroad only after obtaining permission from a Court in Surat which permitted return of his passport deposited in the Court, to enable him to travel to the US. The Court order was passed only after the Gujarat state police and the government were informed of Aakar Patel’s request to travel abroad and fiercely opposed the petition. Eventually, the Court permitted him to travel only after he gave full information to the Government authorities about his tour plan, addresses of places he was planning to stay and tour itinerary, which included lectures in the New York University and Berkeley. Very importantly, Aakar complied with the condition of the court to deposit Rs. 2 lakhs as condition for permission for return of passport to enable him to travel between 1st March and 30th May, 2022.
It should be pointed out that the Government did not disclose before the appropriate court which legally permitted Aakar to travel, that there was a travel ban by virtue of an existing CBI case. It is in this background that the actions of the Government o block Aakar Patel from travelling is illegal and reprehensible.
It is important to note that such a circular has no statutory or legal basis and is a misuse of executive power to impose what is in effect a de-facto travel ban.
The action of the Government of India is nothing but vengeful and spiteful as Aakar Patel has been a trenchant and strong critic of the ruling BJP government and has exposed and opposed its anti-democratic, unconstitutional an anti-people policies, laws and actions.
A week earlier, on 29.03.2022, another prominent journalist, Rana Ayyub was also prevented from travelling abroad to address an international journalism festival as well as speak at the office of prominent global newspaper, the Guardian, in London. Rana Ayyub was not given any written intimation about the reason for Immigration department not allowing her to fly but was orally told that the Enforcement Directorate will be emailing summons to her. Two hours after her detention at the airport, ED issued a summons to her. Though later, the Delhi High Court has permitted her to travel, the fact remains that the Central Government brazenly and arbitrarily abused its power to violate the fundamental right of Rana Ayyub to travel, free speech and dissent.
Both Rana Ayyub and Aakar Patel are prominent journalists and well known citizens, who by no stretch of imagination can be put in `flight risk’ category or list of people who will try to escape the law. In a similar case adjudicated by the Delhi High Court the Court held that a person going to attend a conference to express an opinion which may not be palatable to the government cannot be stifled. As the Court noted in `Priya Pillai v. Union of India’
Amongst the varied freedoms conferred on an individual (i.e., the citizen), is the right of free speech and expression, which necessarily includes the right to criticise and dissent. Criticism, by an individual, may not be palatable; even so, it cannot be muzzled.
What both decisions have in common is that they target prominent critics of the government who are very articulate, expressive and well informed critics of the Central Government and its anti-people policies. In effect, by not allowing dissent its rightful constitutional place, the government is proving its critics right, namely that the Central Government is so intolerant of criticism that it will not shy away from brazenly abusing the various instrumentalities at its disposal, from the ED to the CBI, to prevent its critics from speaking out. The government is in effect misusing its executive power to censor a person’s political opinion.
This is a matter of deep shame for a country which prides itself on being the world’s largest democracy. If democracy is to mean anything at all, it should mean that criticism even fierce criticism which the government perceives to be unfair, is accepted with good grace. As Gandhiji said in the context of India’s struggle for independence:
We must first make good the right of free speech and free association before we can make any further progress towards our goal. […]We must defend these elementary rights with our lives. 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…
Every action of censorship of dissent is an act of betrayal of the Indian constitution and diminishes Indian democracy.
We urge the Government to allow for the free play of dissenting voices as that is the mandate imposed upon them by the Indian Constitution which they have sworn to uphold. We demand that the Government refrain from the unconstitutional use LOC’s as a policy tool to stifle legitimate criticism. We also demand that the travel ban imposed on Aakar Patel, as also on Rana Ayyub, be immediately rescinded and a public apology be tendered to both of them for the unconscionable and unconstitutional actions of preventing them from expressing their constitutional rights of expression and movement.
Dr. V. Suresh, General Secretary, PUCL