Healthy dissent and public debates are key elements of a vibrant democracy. Bad governance or misgovernance can mar this. Misgovernance is a slow reveal which means that only a few grasp quickly what is going on.
Democracy is not a recent import as some believe but has been part of the country’s long history. Unfortunately, in the last two hundred years, the governance model has gone against the decentralized democratic ethos of India.
Freedom of expression in a democratic spirit is an important institution as the founding pillar for meaningful debate and discussion. Best-in-class democracies accommodate the views of both sides of the coin without any curbs.
In actual practice, elected governments invariably deviate from established constitutional mandates. The outright stifling of freedom of expression in a state like Tamil Nadu is a serious concern. Whenever the DMK has come to power, it has been obsessed with how to manoeuvre laws regulating obscenity, hate speech against one or more communities or religion. The DMK has perfected the methods of influencing the media.
The DMK’s interventions in debates have not helped to create consensus. They have abetted rancour. Their nationalist credentials are suspect and they are not committed to the integrity of the country. The newly elected government of Tamil Nadu is no different.
The recent arrest of the nationalist writer and commentator Maridhas is an illustration of how power can be predatory. As noted by Prof Arudra Burra (2018) “the discussion of political speech concludes with an account of the 16th amendment in 1963. The amendment made it constitutionally permissible for the state to restrict speech in the interests of protecting the sovereignty and integrity of India: its ostensible aim was to allow for curbs on the advocacy of secession in India, made at the time primarily by the DMK in Tamil Nadu for a separate ‘Dravidistan’. (The advocacy of secession was made officially unlawful only in 1967, which the passage of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act.)…the amendment passed with huge majorities in both houses of parliament, with the sole vote against it from C.M. Annadurai, representing the DMK in the Rajya Sabha”.
During the previous tenure, too, there were many attacks on media freedom. News headlines talked about how DMK rule was curbing freedom of expression. Attacks on Thuglak and Kumudham magazines highlighted this.
Questions posed by Maridhas related to the political beliefs of then News18 journalists remain unanswered
In the last decade, Tamil Nadu has seen a big spurt in street protests instigated by those with Dravidianist agendas. Their main motive is to depolarise the state in the name of protecting Tamil identity.
People have the constitutional right to question the affairs of the elected government and its malfunctions. Maridhas was defending the best of our Constitutional mandates in protecting the integrity of the country. He was giving fitting replies to those who were insulting the memory of the martyrs who died in the chopper crash in Nilgiris.
Support from court
Maridhas had posted a day after the chopper crash that Tamil Nadu is “becoming another Kashmir under the DMK regime” and it gives “freedom to form groups that can do any level of treason against the country”.The tweet added that “in such a state, any kind of conspiracy can be plotted” and that such “separatist elements should be destroyed”.
For the above, the police arrested him. However, the Hon’ble Madras High Court Madurai Bench quashed the FIR registered on him by saying that the provisions of sections 153,504, and 505(2) and Section 153 A of IPC were illegally framed. The Madras High Court said that “since the petitioner has been an acerbic critic of the ruling party, he has been falsely implicated”.
Further reading the comments of Maridhas, the High Court said that “reading of the petitioner’s tweet only indicates that the petitioner has given a call in favour of national integrity and security. He has taken serious objection to the act committed by certain persons who are undeniably anti-national. The petitioner has called upon the State government to suppress the separatist forces.” The court further went and said that “the petitioner’s intention is that the separatist tendencies must be nipped in the bud…. the petitioner’s tweet was never intended to subvert the Government. On the contrary, it calls for strengthening the foundations of government.”
Maridhas has been an outspoken person commenting on a wide range of public policy issues. Maridhas counters the extreme positions taken by the DK and the DMK and“has attacked the ‘holy duo’ of Tamil Nadu relentlessly — Dravidianism and Marxism. With elaborate chart-based presentations, he explains the concepts to his audience. He has become a phenomenal hit among social media users.
As of now, Maridhas has been freed from only one case. It is an instance of political vendetta that the ruling government in the State is still chasing him and has registered two more cases in Tirunelveli and Thoothukudi. One case is related to the News18 controversial debates which took place some seventeen months ago.
The DMK’s interventions in debates have not helped to create consensus. They have abetted rancour
But questions posed by Maridhas related to the political beliefs of then News18 journalists remain unanswered. Another case is related to the spread of COVID-19 in the initial phase when a few people resisted complying with the government’s public health instructions and orders issued in the interest of the country and the people. The Madurai Bench of Madras High Court on Thursday quashed the FIR registered by the Melapalayam police in Tirunelveli against Maridhas. The Judge said that Maridhas had only questioned the “irresponsible conduct” of the attendees of the Tablighi Jamaat congregation. Thus, it does not violate the IPC.
For those who believe in nationalistic values and Constitutional methods of fighting oppression, this is a time for all democratic forces in the nation to come together to stand with and support Maridhas. It’s him today, tomorrow may be us or our children.
The author is an Economist and Public Policy Expert