Column | When touchy supremos book critics for sedition and police fly down to nab them

Assam police arrests Gujarat MLA Jignesh Mevani over tweet
Congress MLA Jignesh Mevani was arrested by Assam Police from Palanpur town in Gujarat on late Wednesday night over a tweet. Photo: Twitter/@ReallySwara

The arrest of Gujarat MLA Jignesh Mevani by a posse of police officers from Assam on the allegation of spreading hatred through a critical tweet against Prime Minister Narendra Modi has come close on the heels of the police from Punjab, now ruled by AAP, going after two bitter critics of AAP national convenor Arvind Kejriwal. Though it was senior police officers of Assam and Punjab who actually ordered the action, it was evident that the orders came from political masters in the two states to go after those who criticized the supreme leaders of their parties.

But the Mevani case was more baffling. After all there is a BJP government in the western state of Gujarat which has been known to use the police with a heavy hand to go after critics of the party and its leaders. Yet the Assam Police personnel travelled for over a 1000 km, swooped down on Mevani, flew him to Assam without giving him a chance to approach a court in Gujarat for bail, and a magistrate in Assam sent Mevani to police custody. The operation must have used up precious time and expenses for planning and execution. But there were kudos to be received from Delhi.

While prosecuting a high-profile critic like Mevani may be politically thrilling, the disturbing trend is that police forces controlled by different parties are focusing more and more on prosecuting critics for their speeches and statements which is easier to do than investigating big crimes or preventing clashes.

AAP after Bagga
The Punjab Police has come in for for flak for sending a team to Delhi to arrest BJP spokesman Tejinder Pal Bagga, a sharp critic of Kejriwal, who as Delhi chief minister since 2013 is frustrated that he has no control over Delhi Police, which is under the central government. Soon after AAP swept into power in Punjab, those thirsting to teach a lesson to Bagga, ordered loyalist police officials to arrest Bagga and bring him to Punjab, which is not as far from Delhi as Gujarat is from Delhi. But Bagga was tipped off and stayed away. A message went to Punjab that Delhi Police can arrest the policemen seeking Bagga for trespass. Even while 'Operation Bagga' was on hold, the Punjab Police has also booked cases against former AAP leaders poet-politician Kumar Vishwas and former AAP Delhi MLA Alka Lamba, now with Congress for making defamatory allegations against Kejriwal during Punjab election campaign. Both were once great admirers of the Delhi chief minister.

What UP, AP do
Apart from leaders and workers of parties filing police complaints against what they consider as offensive statements against their beloved leaders, some states like Uttar Pradesh have set up aggressive cyber cells, which deploy considerable manpower to go after critics of leaders like Yogi Adityanath. After Telangana Police registered a case in 2016 against the then-Andhra Pradesh chief minister N Chandrababu Naidu he avoided visiting Hyderabad, a city he considers as home. In retaliation, Andhra Pradesh Police hinted they may detain Telangana CM K Chandrashekar Rao if he crossed the border into the neighbouring state.

Old practice
But use of provisions of the Indian Penal Code against critics and media by instituting the case in a town far off from the place of residence of the targeted individual has been a standard practice since British colonial rule. One such attempt to stifle newspapers and television channels is to file cases in many police stations and courts in the country so that the journalists have to spend more time in court appearances than doing their work. Though the UPA government at the Centre had promised to remove defamation as a criminal offence, it did not have enough political space to implement. But the BJP government at the Centre has insisted it wants the offense to continue to be treated as a crime. When journalist Vinod Dua was summoned from Delhi to a remote police station on the charge of a critical statement against Narendra Modi, the Supreme Court intervened to protect him from potential arrest by the police of a BJP-ruled state.

How Bal Thackeray defied arrest bids
But one firebrand leader who defied all attempts to arrest him for controversial statements was Shiv Sena founder Bal Thackeray. Even though police in different states from 1960s to 1980s managed to get arrest warrants against him, Sena would warn that Mumbai will burn if Thackeray was touched. Similarly, when some central ministers wanted to put sedition charges against DMK leaders in 1965 for advocating a separate nation and launching the anti-Hindi agitation, then President of India S Radhakrishnan had suggested persuasion was a better approach than persecution. But nowadays sedition charges are put against opponents even for mild criticism.

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