Abhijit Iyer Mitra: An Audible Silence #FreeAbhijit
I feel like I need to write on this issue today even though it has nothing to do with mental health awareness. I try to keep this blog focused on mental health but every now and then there comes a time when I must stand up as a citizen of my country and stand for justice.
A few weeks back Abhijit Iyer-Mitra, a defense and foreign policy analyst was arrested by the police for ‘outraging religious sentiments’ and charged under section 295 of the Indian Penal Code; something that is similar to the law of blasphemy in various countries. He has since apologized in front of the Odisha assembly and appeared before a Supreme Court bench seeking bail as well. He has been denied the same and has been in jail in judicial custody since. When he was in the Supreme Court and stated that he believes his life is in danger, he was stubbornly told by the bench that there is no place safer than a prison.
Why I am Speaking Now
The natural question that emerges from this post is why would I go for a political post and that too one that has been going on for weeks. The truth is that I expected someone to take the issue up before I could get a chance to speak up. I was certain that some news publication will make this story their major headline and run dedicated campaigns for Abhijit but to this day; their concern has been non-existent. Even those who claim to be the pioneers of a new age, free and hard hitting media have been deafeningly silent. It was hence important that when no one else speaks up, I do.
Freedom of Expression
When the concept of freedom of expression was introduced it was supposed to mean that the individual cannot be tried or arrested by the government for what he/she has said. The concept emerged as anti-government ideas were quickly acted on by the government in an attempt to muzzle dissent but the idea has since been widely debated and continues to be even today.
There is a debate on what the limits to FoE should be. Some say that inciting violence is not under the purview of FoE and others say that religious issues cannot be spoken on freely either. Some absolutists also say that FoE is absolute and there must be no restrictions on speech or content at all. In the context of social media, you will find plenty of people claiming that suspending an account or blocking someone infringes their free speech but it is important to understand the difference between the government and a private entity. Of course, the decisions of the private entity can be challenged in a court of law.
FoE and Abhijit
The major distinction between day to day debates on FoE and this case is that this is when it is actually a state government (Odisha) coming down on an individual with all its resources. He has been denied bail and lives in constant state of fear for his life in prison. This is drastically different from a person having their account deleted on Twitter of Facebook. Passionate TV debates are often seen in the modern newsroom over a suspended account but for Abhijit, there has been nothing more than a whimper.
The only influential people I have come across talking about this are Abhijit’s close aides and that is what scares me a lot. Abhijit’s case is that of classic oppression by the state. This may probably due to pressure applied on the government by the perennially offended religious groups or over something as petty as political vengeance.
How Does it Affect Us?
Now, you might be asking the question on why you should care about someone whose name you probably didn’t even know before you read this article. You should care because one day it could be you and the saddest part is that you probably won’t even have any article written about yourself. Abhijit is a leading defense analyst and has friends who command influence in many a newsroom. Yet, we are hardly hearing anything about him. Why would anyone even talk about you? Even I only got to know about this because I have long been following his work and of those speaking up for him.
We can shout and passionately debate about the freedom of speech for as long as we want but the truth when the state actually starts using its powers in cohorts with religion, freedom of speech will go out the window. You might debate on party lines but the truth is that power is fickle and it can change hands at any time. What will happen when the party you oppose gains power and decides to incarcerate you? For most of us, this would happen silently. In a small police station of a small city. There won’t be any protests over it and there won’t be any outrage.
Freedom of Speech, hence, will die a slow, painful and silent death.
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