We need to end harassment through FIRs

India’s central and state governments have long misused a variety of laws and rules to cow opponents and silence critics. Trolling, abuse and threats of rape or killing on social media are other standard tactics. The BJP may be the current practitioner of such tactics, but all others are guilty of it.

These traditional tools of suppression have now been supplemented by a new one. Rana Ayyub, a civil rights activist, says she is now being targeted not just by BJP governments but by individuals and institutions filing FIRs (First Information Reports) on trumped up charges. Her entire waking hours are taken up with legal cases, crippling her normal activism. The danger is that this tactic can spread like wildfire to kill dissent. 

In June, Ayyub was accused of criminal conspiracy for merely retweeting a story of a Muslim harassed by a Hindu mob. But now a group called “Hindu IT Cell” has filed an FIR accusing her of misusing funds collected for Covid relief. The Cell claims to have thousands of members sworn to “defend” Hinduism. Their new initiative is to file FIRs.

Activist filmmaker Gautam Subrahmanyam says anyone can walk into a police station to file an FIR. The original aim of this procedure was to empower weak, marginalised groups to force the police to pay heed to their grievances. Alas, it has now become an instrument of suppression.

In FIRs covering “cognizable offences,” arrest without warrants is possible. Cognizable offences include charges of creating enmity and outraging religious feelings. If the ruling party is with the accuser, this can mean interminable harassment.

Stand-up comedian Munawar Faruqui was jailed without bail for supposedly insulting Hindu deities. In multiple FIRs across India, the director and actors of Amazon’s web series Tandav were accused of hurting religious Hindu sentiments. The actors argued that views expressed by a character in a film could not be attributed to the actors. Sadly, the Supreme Court held that they could.

Where does this leave us? Once, the courts gave wide latitude to freedom of speech and restricted it only in very severe cases. It now seems courts will entertain any claim that religious sentiments have been hurt, although the very concept of an entire community like Hindus having one sentiment is highly dubious.

Hinduism has always covered multiple philosophies and ideologies. What stands out is not the unity of Hindu sentiment but diversity. Every Hindu faction has ideas that can be found hurtful by factions. If everybody is hurtful, everybody is guilty and so all Hindus can be charged and jailed without bail for having committed cognizable offences against one another. Sounds crazy? Yes, but it is the logical outcome of courts allowing narrow groups to represent entire, diverse religions.

Different factions with highly conflicting views are evident in other religions too. Muslim factions include Sunnis, Shias and Ahmadiyyas. Sunnis and Shias have been killing one another for centuries and still do. The most fundamental assertion of Shias, of Imam Hussein’s supremacy, is hurtful apostasy to may Sunnis. So, should all Sunnis be jailed for hurting Shia sentiment and vice versa? 

Every religion and religious faction views its own beliefs as superior and other beliefs as inferior. This means the very assertion of religious belief by one group can be hurtful to others. The ideal of being respectful to all is a contradiction in terms. The answer surely is to tolerate criticism instead of rushing to legal recourse. Instead, a few groups are claiming (with no basis) to represent all Hindu sentiment, and filing FIRs across the country.

What is the way forward? I think liberals and Opposition parties need to hoist the fundamentalists with their own petard. Liberal Hindus should file thousands of FIRs, protesting that their religious sentiments have been hurt by Hindutva outfits. Muslim and Christian groups can similarly file multiple FIRs claiming religious hurt. To reduce inter-communal tension, one strategy would be for people to file such cases against factions in their own religion, not other religions.

Safety lies in numbers, so the critics should file thousands of FIRs so that arresting all will become impractical. Cases should be filed in states with the most liberal attitudes, least likely to crack down on protestors.

In such a situation, the courts will be obliged to come out with clear guidelines that check the misuse of individual FIRs, and allow for arrest and prosecution only in dire cases. This alone will check the new form of FIR harassment. It is a necessary though not sufficient step towards a freer society.

This article was originally published in The Times of India on 23 October 2021.

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