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India: Violent Assault on Prashant Bhushan - Demonstrates bad times for freedom of expression

Selected Media Commentary

15 October 2011

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  1. Stem hate politics (Editorial, Deccan Herald)
  2. Dangerous culture of intolerance (Editorial, The Hindu)
  3. Come down hard on those who threaten free speech (Editorial, Mail Today)
  4. Ugly face of fascism (Editorial, Kashmir Times)
  5. Attack on Bhushan demonstrates rising intolerance (Yamini Lohia — livemint)
  6. Stop attacks on democracy (Editorial, The Economic Times)

Deccan Herald

Editorial: Stem hate politics

’’Everyone has a right to express his opinion.’’

The violent attack on eminent Supreme Court lawyer and Team Anna member Prashant Bhusan and the subsequent assault on some of his supporters in the court premises by activists of the Sri Ram Sene and the Bhagat Singh Kranti Sena must be strongly condemned. These are attacks not just on individuals but an assault on the right to freedom of speech and expression. Bhushan recently expressed support for a referendum in Jammu and Kashmir. While this is a deeply controversial issue in the country, Bhushan has the right to express his opinion on the subject. The Indian Constitution guarantees him the right to freedom of speech and expression. This isn’t the first time that those who express alternate views on Kashmir have become targets of intimidation and violence. It may be recalled that author, activist Arundhati Roy was heckled and then slapped with sedition charges for saying that Kashmir’s accession to India was not final.

In the name of defending Indian culture and now India’s territorial integrity outfits like the Sri Ram Sene go around unleashing violence. The Sene’s foot soldiers have beaten up girls in bars in Mangalore, ransacked homes in Bangalore where liquour was served at parties, and assaulted those who celebrate Valentines’ Day and so on. Society’s silence has facilitated this outfit to persist with its intolerant, violent and fascist agenda. Worse, the government has handed them with kid gloves. Those who attacked Bhushan and his supporters should be given stern punishment. While most political parties have condemned the attack, Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray has applauded the thuggery. His response is an incitement to violence and appropriate action must be taken against him as well.

The greatest threat to India today is not from those who question the accession of Kashmir to India or even armed secessionists but from those who do not believe in the idea of India and go about destroying it. India’s founding fathers conceived of this country as a pluralist, secular, tolerant and inclusive country, one where citizens were free to express their ideas and views non-violently. Sadly, this idea of India is being eroded by outfits like the Sri Ram Sene, the Shiv Sena and other fundamentalist organisations and parties. Their moral and political policing must be stopped as it is illegal. The hate ideologies they propagate thrive because they enjoy political patronage. The government must take steps to deny them the oxygen that keeps them alive.

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The Hindu, October 14, 2011

Editorial: Dangerous culture of intolerance

It speaks to the deeply divisive times we live in that Team Anna activist and Supreme Court lawyer Prashant Bhushan was savagely assaulted in his own chamber — and in the full glare of television cameras — for the “crime” of saying something that his attackers disapproved of. In the past, intolerant groups who seem to have no problem breaking the law with impunity, have targeted writers, artists, journalists, scholars, and activists whose work they did not like. Mr. Bhushan has lately been in the public eye for going full-throttle against high-level corruption, both in his capacity as a lawyer and as part of Anna Hazare’s spectacularly-mounted and hugely resonant Jan Lokpal Bill campaign. As a petitioner in the 2G scam case, he has taken on some of the most powerful names in politics and industry. Yet if Mr. Bhushan has rendered himself vulnerable today, it is for his daring work in the field of civil liberties. In recent years, he has braved criticism to defend those accused of terrorism, taken up the cause of Binayak Sen and spoken out against the violation of human rights in Kashmir. Indeed, Mr. Bhushan was set upon in his office by right-wing fanatics because he suggested at a conference on Kashmir that a referendum may be an option failing other measures such as withdrawal of the Army and the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act. That the Ram Sena activists had worked themselves into a frenzy ahead of the attack is evident from a YouTube clip containing the speech in question. In the digitally altered clip, Mr. Bhushan appears with his face blackened, and there is a warning to Anna for harbouring a traitor: Brashtachari ko phansi to desh drohi ko kya? (You are advocating death to the corrupt, what about traitors?)

The brazen manner of the attack on Mr. Bhushan — with the goons obviously enjoying being on camera — exposes the extent to which lawlessness and intolerance have corroded the Indian political culture. The attack is also proof — if any were needed — that corruption and communalism cannot be fought separately. If anything, today’s right-wing intolerance is a product of the failure of past anti-corruption campaigns to recognise the dangers of communalism. The RSS was an integral part of the anti-corruption movements of 1977 and 1989, and the Anna campaign too suffers from the perception that its ranks have been permeated by RSS foot soldiers. Fortunately, Team Anna has dissociated itself from the dubious elements that once shared its anti-corruption plank. It must also help the group that it can count among its members men of such impeccable credentials as Mr. Bhushan. For once the UPA government must shed its customary apathy and proactively prosecute the culprits in the case, especially in the light of Thursday’s ‘follow-up’ attack by Ram Sena thugs on supporters of Mr. Bhushan. For its part, Team Anna needs to be as watchful of right-wing ascendancy as it is of all-pervasive corruption.

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Mail Today, 14 October 2011

Editorial: Come down hard on those who threaten free speech

WEDNESDAY’S attack on Supreme Court lawyer Prashant Bhushan, and the beating up of his supporters outside the Patiala House court complex on Thursday, is deplorable. It is shameful that petty goons can act with such impunity — beating up people just because of the political views they hold. One may not agree with Mr Bhushan’s statement that a plebiscite be held in Jammu and Kashmir, and the people be given the right to self- determination. But these should be contested at an appropriate forum. Such vigilantism is a direct attack on the freedom of speech and has no place in a democracy.

One disturbing aspect of the attack is the perverse form of nationalism espoused by the perpetrators. The mastermind — Tajinder Pal Singh Bagga, president of an organisation called the Bhagat Singh Kranti Sena — went to the extent of proclaiming Mr Bhushan a traitor and justified the attack with an obnoxious tweet: “ he tried to break my country, so I tried to break his head”. Far from being genuinely influenced by the revolutionary Bhagat Singh, Bagga and his associates are nothing but publicity- crazy goons who carry out violence under the garb of nationalism. Moreover, Bagga’s accomplice Inder Verma is the Delhi president of the infamous Sri Ram Sene — an outfit which was exposed as inciting riots for money.

The police must take exemplary action against such people. They have had a history of violent acts in Delhi and if they are not dealt with firmly, they will go the way of the Shiv Sena in Mumbai.

The Sri Ram Sene’s Sangh Parivar links are well known and Bagga, too, claims to have been part of the Bharatiya Janata Party. The BJP must dissociate itself from such entities.

It cannot claim to be part of a democratic setup, yet continue to have links with vigilantes.

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Kashmir Times, 16 October 2011

Editorial: Ugly face of fascism

Real threat to India’s democracy and secularism is from within

The attack on Prashant Bhushan, one of the country’s foremost human rights lawyers, by the goons associated with the fascist outfits, inspired by the RSS ideology, most condemnable as it is, comes again as a sad reminder of the growing influence and reach of the fascist forces which pose a serious threat to secularism, democracy and freedom, three basic foundations of the Indian Constitution. That the hoodlums who thrashed the noted lawyer for his views on Kashmir situation and the solution inside his chamber in the Supreme Court makes their action even more reprehensible. What is even more painful is the fact that these members of the communal and fascist brigade misused the name of India’s most beloved and brave freedom fighter, who along with his colleagues faced the British gallows singing the patriot song and whose objective was a free democratic and socialist India. What is even more shocking is that the Indian state which has earned dubious distinction during the past few years of using brutal force against the democratic forces and the champions of human rights took the incident lightly, failing to deal sternly with such fascist forces.

The essence of democracy is the expression of one’s views freely without any hinderance with a space for dissent and disagreements on various issues and concerns. Tragcially that space is shrinking fast with the fascist forces, inspired by the pernicious Hindutva ideology, which is antithesis of both democracy and secularism and breeds intolerance of the dissenting views, rapidly increasing their influence and reach. The emergence of a number of senas, frequently using violent means against those who believe in the concepts of secularism, democracy and federalism and even resort to riots in the name of religion, race. language and region, poses a serious threat not only to democracy, secularism and federalism but also to the very survival of the nation as a pluralistic entity.

The process had started soon after the country won freedom when the communal forces of different hues resorted to communal riots on large scale and Mahatma Gandhi, who led India to freedom, was assassinated by Nathuram Godse who was inspired by the Hindutva ideology of RSS with V.D.Savartkar, the author of a theocratic state, as his mentor. It was the direct result of the poisonous propaganda against Gandhi and secularism by the RSS through its mouthpieces Organiser and Panchjanya and the RSS shakhas. While the RSS was banned soon after Gandhiji’ assassination this ban was later removed due to political convenience thus providing adequate space in the country’s polity to communal, violent and fascist forces. That provided an opportunity for these forces not only to survive but spread their tentacle by inciting the passions of the gullible people. The Indian state’s failure to check the communal and fascist forces, opposed not only to the concept of pluralism but also democracy, resulted in the political offspring of the RSS gaining power in several states and even at the Centre. That Narendra Modi, who as chief minister of Gujarat, is guilty of anti-Muslim pogrom in his state in 2002 has not only gone scot free but even continues to head the state government is indeed a sad reflection on the secular and democratic character of the country.

The Indian polity has been polluted not only by the fascist forces operating under different garbs but also by the people in power at the Centre and in different states, who are insensitive to any criticism and are intolerant of the voices of dissent and disagreements. These voices and the people’s democratic rights are being stifled in various ways by misusing power and by adopting the convenient weapons of inducements and victimization. The presence of draconian laws on the statute book, use of brutal force to deal with democratic protests and confrontationist attitude of the state against the people are all unmistakable signs of rising fascism. The real threat to India’s survival as a secular, democratic and federal state comes both from the fascist forces operating under different labels as also from those at the helm who fear freedom and have failed to provide space for and respect dissent and disagreements on policies and issues of public concern.

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Attack on Bhushan demonstrates rising intolerance

The incident highlights the degradation in the standard of civil discourse in India, where violence is increasingly becoming an acceptable reaction to disagreement

Yamini Lohia

Wednesday’s attack on Supreme Court lawyer Prashant Bhushan – in his chambers, no less – marked another low in the conduct of public life in India. Bhushan’s crime was to suggest that he supported holding a plebiscite in Kashmir, and that Kashmiris be given the right to self determination. To say that Kashmir is a controversial subject in this country would be an understatement, but the reaction of the men who responded by breaking into Bhushan’s office and whacking him around for expressing an opinion was beyond the pale. More troublingly, this incident highlights the degradation in the standard of civil discourse in India, where violence is increasingly becoming an acceptable reaction to disagreement.

Sure, the behavior of these goons has been categorically condemned across the political spectrum. Still, the fact remains that not only do these men have links with the political establishment – which finds it useful to employ such methods to drum up electoral support — but that their tactics are often conferred legitimacy by the pusillanimous punishment meted out. The lack of any real consequence allows such behavior to continue unchecked; in some cases, the media attention garnered by such actions even encourages subsequent thuggery. But such conduct has no place in a civilized society, especially in a purported democracy that guarantees its citizens the right to free speech.

Rajendra Prasad pointed out in his closing speech at the Constituent Assembly on 26 November 1949 that “successful working of democratic institutions requires…willingness to respect the viewpoints of others, capacity for compromise and accommodation”. Unfortunately, it seems that the capacity to agree to disagree, to air grievances in an appropriate context, is being eroded by political parties who fail to demonstrate leadership through the manner in which they conduct their politics and by the citizens who appear to abide by the Constitution only to enjoy the rights it grants them, without a second thought to the duties that accompany those rights.

Intolerance of this kind has no place in a democracy. There are several outlets available for people to disagree with each other in a civilized way, without resorting to violence. Only strict action against such behavior can send the message that it is unacceptable to use violence as a way to be heard. However, even if the police proceed against those responsible for this latest episode, the tendency of various governments – at the state and at the centre - to give in to the demands made by groups employing such tactics (for example, when MF Husain’s paintings were vandalized, only for his work to be banned on account of obscenity and hurting religious sentiments) means that violence remains a productive strategy. Until governments cease to find such behavior expedient, it is unlikely that we will see a turnaround in the way public discourse is conducted in this country.

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The Economic Times

Editorial: Stop attacks on democracy

ET Bureau Oct 13, 2011, 08.01am IST

The government must take tough action against the individuals who assaulted Supreme Court lawyer Prashant Bhushan and against the organisation that has proudly claimed responsibility for the attack. Political parties and individuals need to reflect on what emboldens fringe groups to take the law into their own hands and celebrate rowdy behaviour as defence of the nation’s unity and integrity, and take corrective action on their part.

When three people barge into a chamber of the Supreme Court to assault a senior lawyer, they declare utter contempt for the ability of the state to enforce order. They also thumb their collective nose at the authority of the law of the land. India cannot continue as a democracy if this tendency is not firmly curtailed.

But then, where do these people derive the confidence that they can profit from such tawdry behaviour, and not merely get away with it? It comes from a combination of three things: routine celebration of jingoism as a virtue, the example set by hon’ble Members of Parliament when they storm into the well of the House and disrupt proceedings to make a point, and the state’s own violent, unlawful , uncivilised ways of dealing with dissent, whether in Kashmir, the north-east or Chhattisgarh.

As a political formation, the Sangh Parivar is at the forefront of whipping up jingoism, identifying nationhood with Hindu majoritarianism and conservative tradition and enforcing their preference, whether on Kashmir or Valentine’s Day, through use of force. The attack on Bhushan is a wake-up call for all those who have been rallying to common causes without regard to how particular forms of pursuing the cause would hurt or harm the values of liberal democracy in India’s evolving polity, apart from hurting and harming particular organisations.

Leaders of the government should introspect on the values the state upholds when it rides roughshod over human rights and civil liberties in the course of chastising rebels against the state. If the state shows scant respect for the rule of law, will fringe organisations that disagree , in any case, with liberal democracy? Some clear thinking and purposive action are very much in order.