Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The right to voice an opinion: Mumbai politics and the arrest of two young women

In the city of Mumbai, Bal Thackeray, the leader of the nationalist and far-right political party Shiv Sena, died on November 17. A de facto bandh (or daylong curfew) was observed immediately after his death. A 21-year-old woman in a town near Mumbai called Palgarh put up a status message on facebook questioning the rationale behind observing a complete shut-down in a city as busy as Mumbai. A friend of hers 'liked' the post.

Both were arrested by the police upon receipt of a complaint made by a party functionary, and reportedly at night, which is against Supreme Court guidelines pertaining to the arrest of women. They were charged with "causing enmity between classes" and instigating religious conflict or hurting "religious sentiments" under provisions of the IT Act. Their uncle's clinic, as reported in the press, was vandalized by around 30-40 people, causing losses estimated somewhere between 15 and 20 lakh INR (around 35k AUD).

While it has been acknowledged by rational-minded individuals that her comment had nothing to do with causing religious offense - democracy ensures and safeguards the right to an opinion on political matters - the damage has already been done. The girls, in their interaction with the media after their arrest and release on bail, said that they had deactivated their facebook accounts and would think several times before posting anything again. They apologized for the comment and accepted responsibility for their actions. It is evident that a climate of intimidation and violence leads to self-censorship. It is also evident that a person cannot exercise his or her right to freedom of expression when political parties and the police, powerful arms of the state, react in such a manner, causing mental trauma and often physical hurt. Although women's rights groups, civil society and several political parties have condemned the incident and sought reparation, and though the courts may intervene, the fact remains that the damage has already been done. The purpose of intimidation is to spread fear, and fear is most potent when handed out by the arm of the law. The lesson lies not in the arbitrary nature of the arrest, it lies in the retraction of the girl's comments, her submission and her apology. It lies in the fact that she conceded she would never post anything again without thinking twice. Whether justified or not, the arrest has served its purpose. It will remind several others of the dangers of voicing an opinion.


Furree Katt said...

So much ado over a Facebook status - shocking! This is the first time I am hearing of such an incident. If this practice keeps up, it's going to be absolutely horrific for almost EVERYONE who expresses their views on social networking websites. Those poor girls.

M said...

The cons of a majoritarian democracy, whattodo?