Ban on People’s March: An Affront to the Right to Free Expression

Gilbert Sebastian

On 19 December 2007, P. Govindan Kutty, the editor of Peoples’ March, an English magazine sympathetic to the Maoist movement was picked up by the Kerala police under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967. Govindan Kutty was on a long hunger strike in the jail and was released on bail on 24 February 2008. However, the government’s real intention was seen through in the act of imposing a ban on the Peoples March through an order of the District Magistrate of Ernakulam by the time he was released.

Similarly, Prafulla Jha, president of PUCL in Chhattisgarh; Pittala Srisailam, editor of online television Musi TV and co-convener of Telangana Journalists Forum (TJF); and Lachit Bordoloi, secretary general of the human rights organisation, Manab Adhikar Sangram Samiti (MASS) and freelance journalist from Assam were arrested in the months of December 2007 and January 2008. All of them were journalists/human rights activists. Except Bordoloi, with alleged sympathies to the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), the other three were supposed to be sympathetic to the Maoist movement. These arrests may be seen in conjunction with the statement on 20 December 2007 by the Prime Minister Manmohan Singh that “Leftwing extremism is probably the single biggest security challenge to the Indian State” and his vow to ‘eliminate this “virus”’. (See a report on these arrests, dated 22 March 2008 in Tehelka magazine). As someone had insightfully pointed out, it is the paradox of Indian democracy that criminals and mass murderers are lodged in parliament and assemblies while those who stand with the people are hunted out and put behind bars (Srinivas Chava).

Are we to believe that Peoples March was banned mainly to cover up the gross atrocities such as of a State-sponsored militia like the Salwa Judum in Chhattisgarh? Peoples March has been a rare source of information on the violence and mayhem unleashed by the ‘Salwa Judum’, the Indian State’s dirty war against its own people which according to an independent estimate has resulted in 548 murders, 99 rapes and 3000 incidents of burning houses. (Read, Shubranshu Choudhary 2007: “The state’s purification hunt”, Himal Southasian, vol. 20, no. 12, December, pp. 40-42). People’s March has been an extraordinary publication, the voice of the most important stream of Indian revolution, in its own words. As Prof. Manoranjan Mohanty puts it, “Democratic space for discussion on people’s struggles must be defended.”

The ban is a clear violation of Article 19a, the right to freedom of expression, a fundamental right. Where is the legitimacy of a ‘liberal’ State that does not adhere to the Constitution it swears by? In fact, the ideas in Peoples March are not communal, casteist, or creating any other undesirable division among sections of the population that a ban was warranted against it. (And in this respect, Peoples March has been unlike many other publications in India that are still not banned.) The ideas in Peoples March have been based on the universalistic notions of class struggle. Does it now sound like a joke that the preamble of the Indian Constitution itself says that India is a “sovereign socialist secular democratic republic”?

The ban order of the DM of Ernakulam charges that the ideas in Peoples March bring about “contempt and create disaffection against the Government of India”. Since the neo-liberal State in India is ostensibly anti-people, it is no wonder if this be the case. Espousing the cause of the peoples of Kashmir and the north-east of the country is seen as “hosting anti national contents” (the cited ground on which the web pages of People’s March were blocked earlier). Shouldn’t the government better realise that by banning the expression of certain ideas, they do not cease to be so long as the material bases for these ideas continue to be? That the mainstream media organisations in the country have been rather quiet on these arrests and the subsequent ban on People’s March, exposes their illiberal attitude and complicity. Addressing student dissenters, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh himself had cited Voltaire in a speech by him in JNU on 14 Nov. 2005: “I may disagree with what you have to say, but I shall defend, to the death, your right to say it.” Where are liberal supporters of Voltaire now?

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