Baba Ramdev Does Have Freedom Of Speech, But That's Only Part Of The Story

06/04/2016 3:38 PM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:26 AM IST
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MANJUNATH KIRAN via Getty Images
Indian Yoga guru Baba Ramdev stretches after addressing a press conference in Bangalore on March 18, 2016, ahead of a five day yoga camp. / AFP / Manjunath Kiran (Photo credit should read MANJUNATH KIRAN/AFP/Getty Images)

Does freedom of speech not apply to Baba Ramdev?

That’s what BJP president Amit Shah wants to know. Absolutely, it does.

Baba Ramdev, if you remember, decided a Sadbhavna (compassion) rally was the perfect setting to thunder “Koi aadmi topi pehan kar ke khada ho jaata hai, bolta Bharat Mata ki Jai nahi bolunga, chahe meri gardan kaat do. Arey is desh mein kanoon hai, nahi toh teri ek ki kya, hum toh lakhon ki gardan kaat sakte hain. (Someone wearing a cap stands up and says that he won't chant Bharat Mata Ki Jai even if someone kills him. There is a law in this country, otherwise I would've beheaded lakhs of people.)

Baba Ramdev at least admits the law restrains him. And he is not literally asking anyone to go on a beheading rampage any more than Smriti Irani is really offering to cut off her head and place it at Mayawati’s feet.

Shah has sprung to the Baba’s defence saying while Baba Ramdev is not a member of the BJP he wants to know “from those who talk of free speech, does it not apply to Baba Ramdev”.

It’s rather peculiar that a yoga guru who should be adept at doing headstands wants to be known for cutting off heads instead. As a biting cartoon from Hemant Morparia puts it Baba Ramdev seems to have morphed from Deshbhakt to Daesh-bhakt, Daesh, of course, being the preferred name for ISIS infamous for its beheading videos.

It’s rather peculiar that a yoga guru who should be adept at doing headstands wants to be known for cutting off heads instead

But to each his own and certainly freedom of expression should protect Baba Ramdev and his virtual sword of patriotic fervour just as it should protect Salman Rushdie, Taslima Nasreen, those young women who posted on Facebook after Bal Thackeray’s death, the university professor who forwarded that cartoon poking fun at Mamata Banerjee, U R Ananthamurthy, Asaduddin Owaisi, Umar Khalid and the list goes on.

Shah’s statement epitomizes what bedevils freedom of expression in this country. We wilfully refuse to understand that the same laws, the same rights should apply to everyone and that includes people we vehemently disagree with. Otherwise freedom of expression becomes merely another form of “selective outrage”. Just as Shah asks what about Ramdev he opens himself up to the counter charge – what about Kanhaiya Kumar, what about Owaisi?

The right to chant “Bharat mata ki jai” cannot trump the right to chant “Jai Hind” instead or chant nothing at all and still be entitled to all the protections that the Indian constitution offers. Freedom of expression is not about being nice, patriotic or aadarsh balak. To be worth anything it has to be a right, not a perk to be doled out according to the whims of the ideology in power. Those who never offend anyone have no practical need for the protection that freedom of expression offers anyway.

To be worth anything it has to be a right, not a perk to be doled out according to the whims of the ideology in power

This selective understanding of freedom of expression suits our powers that be perfectly. In 2008 during UPA rule, two young men were arrested for posting derogatory content about Sonia Gandhi on Orkut. Kapil Sibal as communication minister tried to force social media sites like Facebook to pre-screen content, pointing to an offensive anti-Sonia Gandhi page and saying “This is unacceptable.” An unnamed UPA top official had told The Indian Express. “The government of India does not believe in censorship. But sensitivity and feelings of different communities cannot be allowed to be hurt.”

Mostly it’s political sensitivity that cannot bear to be hurt. A picture photoshopped to show Narendra Modi bowing down before a Saudi sheikh is absolutely yellow journalism especially if it’s deliberately peddled as fact not satire. BJP MP Maheish Girri took up the matter with the I&B ministry, the same Girri who vociferously pursued the JNU fracas. But Girri shows his selective outrage when he does not protest the doctoring and photoshopping when it comes to JNU student videos as yellow journalism.

The likes of Girri might say the difference is when it is about the office of the Prime Minister. But that’s just hogwash. As an I&B official tells the media “A black-and-white photo of a young Modi holding a broom that was widely circulated during the Lok Sabha elections to reaffirm his humble past was fake. Modi’s photo posted by the Press Information Bureau which showed him in a helicopter during an aerial survey of flood-hit Chennai, had also been photoshopped.”

Photoshopping falsehoods into fact is wrong, no matter whether it elevates the office of the PM or denigrates it.

Photoshopping falsehoods into fact is wrong, no matter whether it elevates the office of the PM or denigrates it

In India all rights and all laws seem to come with a VVIP exception. All that changes with a change in sarkar is the particular pantheon that’s off limits, protected from the grubby fingers of the aam aadmi’s freedom of expression. Thus a BJP in opposition can call Section 66A an “online emergency” yet defend it when in power. And the Congress which helped pushed it through in the first place can rejoice “Free speech reigns supreme” when the Supreme Court strikes it down just because it’s no longer in power.

The government is both stoking the fire and downplaying the issue. BJP leader and Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis says people not saying “Bharat Mata ki jai” should leave India.

But in Delhi, Union minister M Venkaiah Naidu says those are views not authorized by the government. “Has the government issued any circular saying that those who don’t say ‘Bharat Mata ki jai’ should leave the country?” asks Naidu.

As has been pointed out by multiple people on Twitter, Baba Ramdev might be a private citizen, and not officially a member of the BJP, but Devendra Fadnavis is a sitting chief minister belonging to the BJP. How much more “authorized by government” can you get?

All it shows is that on contentious issues like this governments are happy to talk out of both sides of their mouth. Or if we are to take Naidu at face value, the government’s right hand does not know what the left hand is doing. Chopping off heads, maybe? But just keep in mind it’s still a private act not authorized by a government circular.

In India all rights and all laws seem to come with a VVIP exception

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