Hail to the Apex Court

By Albert Thyrniang

Last Friday the Supreme Court warned that states and the police would face contempt charges if they restrict citizens’ SOS calls for medical help via the social media. SOS, originally standing for ‘Save our Souls’ or ‘Save Our Ship’ is a facility that can be activated in smart phones in case of distress and emergency. During this horrifying COVID-19 second wave outbreak, SOS alerts have become common for individuals, families, NGOs and even hospitals to calls for help for oxygen, medicines and emergency medical attention.  Even the Indian High Commission in London put out an SOS tweet pleading for help to tackle the devastating, epic crisis back home. But the trend has upset the centre and some state governments.

Infamous for ruthless crackdown on protests and dissent, UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath directed officials to act against individuals who spread “rumours” by appealing for oxygen through social media. He even instructed the police to charge them under the National Security Act and seize their property. Subsequently, the Amethi Police booked a boy under the IPC for a SOS tweet for leads on availability of oxygen to save the life of his critical grandfather.

The pro-people stance at these trying times is commendable. Complementing the Punjab and Haryana High Courts which lauded social media for reaching out to people in urgent medical need, the stern caution from the Apex Court is a blow to Adityanath. The strong view should nip in the bud any misuse of the law against needy citizens. The situation in UP is disastrous. Media fact checks clearly prove that there is shortage of oxygen in the state. Doctors openly admit that people have died in hospitals for scarcity of medical oxygen. The claim of the Chief Minister of stock piling oxygen is wrong. The SOS pleas are not propaganda to malign his government. The timely intervention from the Highest Court is a relief as the gasping for breath, frantic search for beds, distressed calls for medical aid are not unique to UP and Delhi but to Karnataka, Gujarat, Maharasthra, Madhya Pradesh and eventually the entire country. People need to use social media to let their grievances known. Why to clamp down against desperate appeals?

This ‘national’ restrain against coercive action came close on the heels of the Madras High Court singularly blaming the Election Commission of India (ECI) for the second wave of the pandemic. The Delhi High Court too castigated the Delhi government’s mismanagement of oxygen supply. The pro-active and pro-people role of the courts is the hope of the one billion people of this nation in their fight against the ravaging plague. Hope other courts take a cue from the shining examples and reverse the recent trend of courts tending to be politically influenced in return for post-retirement rewards.

In the meantime as the coronavirus contagion rages claiming recorded casualties, not necessarily from the virus but from the collapse of the health care system, free speech on social media too is under threat. Netizens flooded Twitter, Facebook and other social media platforms to criticise the government and demand for better handling of the public health crisis. Although denied but claims were made that the Indian government requested the social media companies to take down contents under the ‘misinformation’ pretext.

Obligingly, Twitter and others removed nearly 100 posts critical of the Centre. The trending hashtag #ResignModi was taken down and temporarily blocked on Facebook. It is very convenient for social media giants to clarify that the removal was an error. The country’s political leadership under Narendra Modi appears to be to clamp down on criticism and silence critics to avoid public scrutiny of its complacency, callousness and incompetence in preventing and dealing with the COVID-19 ‘storm’. The central government’s suppression of the fundamental rights is quite well known. It has shut down the internet in different parts of the country at different times to disable citizens from voicing against its policies and administration. Tolerance on freedom of speech has been on the wane under the present regime.

Initially this writer too wanted to let pass yet another rejoinder by one of the political stalwarts of the state. But when one realised that there is an underlying message of intolerance it could not be ignored. It is amusing that a veteran politician had to succumb to ‘peer pressure’ to read my article and then be compelled to response to that ignorable piece. The Adviser to a party is quite liberal in his advice these days. But while on one occasion his counsel was actually a threat, on the latest it was unsolicited. He even invited me to join politics and volunteered to screen my application into his party. He can send the form via electronic mailing.

The invite could be a joke or a ridicule, but the implications are serious. The assertion that to understand issues one has to be in politics is baffling. We may not comprehend the ‘intrinsic values of practical politics and local administrative systems,’ but does it means we have to join active politics? Is there a guarantee that if we become politicians we understand these and other issues better? Even if one does not have a comprehensive view on a matter should one be silent unless one is in politics?

One is quite aware of the matter regarding women’s participation in traditional institutions like the ‘Syiemship’ and the ‘Sirdarship’. That is why the statement was, ‘perhaps another court verdict is needed to change things.’ The local administrative laws of the traditional durbar, village administration law, etc which are ‘accepted tenets’ are not above legal scrutiny. Even if one has not sufficiently understood the above matters fully should one be barred from expressing oneself or should one be led to politics? Should politicians tell writers who opine on ‘easier said than done’ issues that they shouldn’t say a word until and unless they are politicians first?

The Prime Minister and Home Minister and the central government have been facing heavy flak for being responsible for the present COVID-19 second wave catastrophe. Scathing criticisms are in for the euphoria in declaring victory over the virus far too early, for the failed vaccine policy, for acute oxygen shortage and a host of sins of omission and commission. Should critics be ridiculed for their judgment on these ‘easier said than done’ concerns? Should they be condemned for not having access to the inner workings of politics thus prejudicing their views?

The international press has been stinging in its attacks of the Prime Minister accusing him of leading ‘India out of lockdown and into a COVID apocalypse” and blaming his ‘overconfidence’, obsession with his ‘strongman image’, ‘arrogance’ and ‘incompetency’ for the catastrophe. Some called this ‘tsunami’ a carnage and a crime against humanity because the people in power have fallen short of duties. Should foreign journalists be told ‘you don’t understand the Indian reality and hence your critical views have little credibility’? Should they be ordered to come to India first to understand the nitty gritty of Indian politics?

Implications can be endlessly cited. If the UDP criticises the BJP, should the saffron party say, ‘you don’t know enough about our inner functioning, therefore you better join us first’ and vice versa? The same applies to the NPP, the Congress, HSPDP, PDF and NCP. Or should leaders of these parties shut up non-politicians who express their thoughts on their parties, on governance, on traditional institutions by condemning them as coming from non-qualified individuals? Should they be asked to enter active politics before writing a letter to the editor or a newspaper column on any subject? Should ministers resent criticism when the ‘culprits’ are not politicians, and hence assume they have insufficient knowledge of the working of a government? Why should politicians claim to have exclusive privilege to understand issues? Is not the freedom of the press a constitutional right of every citizen of this country irrespective of their level of knowledge and understanding? Which article states that only when a citizen has advanced in grasping an issue and only if he/she is a politician only then is he/she competent to speak?

Even atheists can write on religion, devotees on atheism, apolitical persons on politics, non-educationists on education, non-economists on economics and so on. There is no restriction. Rejoinders and rebuttals are, of course, rights of all. But one inviting the other to associate with him or her before qualifying to express his views is absurd. It is actually intolerance and an exhibition of a closed mind set.

Politicians understand issues as politicians, others do so as observers. Everyone has a space and a role. The summon to join politics just because a person lacks the understanding of a subject or for whatever reason, is detestable.  Knowledge is limitless. What someone lacks is supplemented by others and is welcome but not the unsolicited offer to alter one’s identity.

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