Kerala is going through the toughest days in its recent history. This is no time to distract attention from the massive relief efforts after floods took more than 400 lives and destroyed property worth tens of thousands of crore.
Yet, a certain question must be asked. No, it's not about anything the government hasn't done to help the people. It isn't about anything they failed to do in advance to mitigate the flood impact.
The question is about the inordinately high level of police activism in the state. About the tearing hurry with which the Kerala police acted on criticism against the government.
On Monday, the Kerala police framed charges against an army officer who posted a critical video message on social media. Unni Nair, who works with the Defence Security Corps (DSC), had posted a video in which he asked why the Kerala government wasn't allowing he deployment of the armed forces for rescue efforts.
Here's the full text of the post:
"I am recording this video with sadness. Kerala CM Pinarayi, what do you think about the Army? Do you think they are coming to administer the state? Don't you have any sensible minister? Is Kodiyeri the only one sensible among you? He seems to have had a bad experience with the Army, but don't think the whole Army is like that. My family has beens tuck in these floods for 4 days. None of the rescue teams have reached there yet. Only the locals are helping out. Please. I never thought that you will be so insensible, Why are you doing like this? Do you not value the people? Or is it just about the votes?"
Nair posted the video at a time when the state was gripped by the fear that the greatest calamity was to befall on it. The local MLA from Chengannur, where 50,000 people were staring at death, was in tears appealing for army deployment. Nair, whose relatives were trapped in the same region, was asking the same question.
What was offensive in this post? "Don't you have any sensible minister?" "Please, I never thought that you will be so insensible"? Or anything else?
Compared with the vitriol flowing on social media, this was a much more civil way of expressing anguish. Yet, the Kerala police has framed charges against him. It's baffling. It's equally baffling that the army public relations department issued a clarification saying that Nair was an "imposter". This was wrong too. Nair, an ex-serviceman, is currently serving in DSC, an army wing.
Under the Army Act, he is not allowed to make a public comment in army uniform. But that's a matter the army must deal with on its own.
The Kerala police booked him for "spreading false information on the ongoing relief work". This is incredulous! Doesn't a citizen of the country have the right to criticise the government? What's the false information he was spreading? Did he say that a dam had breached? Did he say that Hindu gangs were looting houses abandoned by Muslims or vice versa? Did he even say that the government was sleeping? Or that the CM had gone to attend a politburo meeting in New Delhi?
This was a citizen's cry for help. And he did it in a civil way. He was probably wrong to don an army uniform. The Army could carry out an enquiry and court-martial him if need be.
When the state police slaps a case against him and later arrests him, it becomes a humiliating assault on free speech. It's an attack on the democratic values of the country. Since when have we instituted into our charters a clause that the ruler should not be criticised? That a state chief minister's holy name can't be evoked in a context other than one of slavish praise?
The police action on him was shameful, and it will never hold water in a court of law. More shameful was the hurry with which the police chased down this hapless man. Surely they didn't have more urgent matters at hands -- relief, rescue? A case of utterly lopsided priorities. A frightening evidence of the crony policing that's in display ever since the LDF government came to power in Kerala.
Sinister response mechanism on social media
Kerala isn't North Korea, but this sort of draconian measures will make it one. The chief minister and his government leaders need a crash course in democracy, please. Because, every time someone is hauled over the coals to satisfy a ruler's perceived ego, the collective conscience of the state is taking a bad hit. If we don't defend it cutting across party lines an ideology divides, the freedoms we cherish will be all but gone. No fascist state was ever built in a day.
After Unni Nair was chased down in social media and police caught up with him, a similar, sinister response mechanism has thrived in Kerala. There are war cries everywhere. It's easy to discount such responses as post-trauma response pattern but it's safe not to do so.
In another case, a young man was lifted up by a chopper from waters. It was revealed later that he wash's exactly in grave danger. He had apparently gone out to buy medicines for his father when he saw choppers circling around. The man was picked up and flown to the camp, but he admitted that he was not in need of rescue. A grave error, of course. But the social media chorus is out there singing "Punish him." Kerala DGP Lokanath Behra, will you frame charges against him as well? Social media wants it, you know.
In yet another example of extremely frayed nerves and heavily distorted frame of reference, the public is asking for the blood of a man who posted message on Facebook apparently doling out 'guidance' on flood relief. The man, Suresh Kochattil, was pilloried for raising doubts about the kind of relief material flooding into Kerala. I do disagree with certain things he said in his post. He was wrong to say that the flood affected people were all rich and they don't need aid. They do need aid in all forms, whether it's rice, napkins or money. But if you listen to the 11- minute audio, it's clear that he was making valid points as well.
Opinion policing and online lynch mobs
Sending police to his doorstep is a knee-jerk reaction. Playing for the social media galleries, where online lynch mobs rule the roost, is not becoming of the police and the civil administration. "Harassing this guy is the lowest level to which people and the government can stoop. He is entitled to his opinion and we are entitled to disagree. We who talk of misuse of freedom of speech are the first to curb inconvenient view points and then talk of freedom of the press. A crash course in democracy, please," says Ravi Menon, senior journalist.
Whimsical arrest of critics is sign of weakening democracy. Even more alarming is the rise in the call for arrest and public harassment of people with a different opinion. The danger is that the latter feeds on the former. Flood and its trauma should not be used as a cover to push dangerous opinion policing that hurts our democratic values.
(The opinions expressed are the author's own)