Prominent citizens and civil society activists today questioned the "silence" of the Prime Minister's office on recent "blatant" attacks on free speech of writers and academicians and demanded that these constitutional rights be protected.
The citizens in a joint statement said that in the last fortnight there had been a "resurgence" of attacks to curb the right to free speech and expression of those who did not "share the euphoria, hope and enthusiasm associated with recent election results".
The statement said the brutal lynching of an innocent young professional in Pune, following the arson and rioting in reaction to a Facebook post, is evidence of a "continuing atmosphere of intolerance and fear that threatens our democracy and must be stopped immediately".
It said such attempts to curtail the right to free speech and expression have been recurring over the past two decades, irrespective of the political party in power.
Giving examples of such incidents, the statement said that last month, Kannada writer, U.R. Ananthamurthy was sent a one-way ticket to Karachi as well as threatened with phones calls for saying 'I would not like to live in a country ruled by Modi'.
The statement said a youth, Syed Vaqas, along with four friends from Bhatkal, Karnataka were arrested for sending a message (when the election results were announced) caricaturing the BJP government’s election slogan 'abki bar antim sanskar (modi sarkar).'
The signatories to the statement include Aruna Roy, Romila Thapar, Baba Adhav, Vivan Sundaram, Mrinal Pande, Jean Dreze, Jayati Ghosh, Anand Pathwardhan and Mallika Sarabhai.
The citizens also lodged their protest against the "continuing intolerant legislative attempts at criminalizing dissenting opinion" and those who take law into their hands to disrupt peaceful discussions and dialogue and said they opposed the use of the "draconic" Section 66A of the IT Act against them.
"In the two recent cases in Karnataka and Goa, the representatives of police in Goa and Bangalore have stated in the newspapers that these cases do not warrant arrests. But the PMO has remained silent on this blatant attack on curbing citizens’ free speech and expression," the press statement signed by more than 200 citizens said.
"We urge the Prime Minister, and the Government of India and all state governments to respect the right of citizens' to express their thoughts and views, guaranteed by the Constitution of India, without fear of retribution," the statement said.
"The curbing of expression with threat and through terror, increasingly more menacing, should be condemned and stopped, if our country is to become a mature democracy. Indeed, the expression of varied and differing opinions strengthen the political discourse and empowers people to make informed choices, the statement said.
The citizens said voicing of dissent, expression of concern, constructive criticism and adversarial dialogue are an integral part of deliberative democracy.
"The ongoing attempts to quell political dissent or dialogue among citizens through draconian laws for ulterior motives poses a grave danger to Indian democracy," the statement said.
"We fully support the right of all citizens to freely express their views, dissenting or otherwise. We demand the concerned authorities follow due process and drop the exaggerated criminal charges against all these individuals, the statement said.
Opposing section 66A of the IT Act, the statement said the Act has been worded "deliberately" to give "unbridled" powers to the state to clamp down on free speech.
"The recent incidents signify abuse under this provision that gives freedom to those in power to violate the fundamental rights guaranteed by our Constitution," it charged.
Condemning the use of "social policing, boycott and other means of state coercion to silence citizens, legitimized through regressive legislations such as the IT Act, the activists demanded that section 66A of the IT Act should be deleted.
"We the undersigned demand that the Government of India and all state governments respect and protect all constitutional rights to free speech and expression, and personal liberty as guaranteed by Article 19 (1) (a), and Article 21 of the Constitution of India," the citizens said.
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