Perhaps the most emotive issue that India has found itself embroiled in, in recent times, is that of free speech and the limits on it. While there are clear legal definitions of what constitutes seditious activity or speech, the law is often clouded by political and sentimental debates around the issue. Criminal defamation remains an even murkier subject.
Are the people of India really losing the constitutional right to freedom of speech and expression? Can liberty come with limits? Or is the whole debate merely an ideological construct of a liberal minority armed with the power of the Internet?
Opinion on these questions remains divided. But what cannot be denied is the fact that India has seen in the recent past an alarming number of instances, where the state has clamped down heavily on free speech. Kanhaiya Kumar is just one in a long list of names.
Many, from diverse walks of life, have experienced the heavy hand of the state and police machinery as evidenced in the numerous reported cases where individuals have been jailed for giving overt expression to their thoughts and perspectives, and in some cases for merely sharing or circulating material deemed to be objectionable.
There have also been cases where having an alternative political philosophy or perspective, contrary to that of the government, has led to charges and even conviction. The most notable of such cases in the recent past, perhaps, is the arrest of Dr Binayak Sen in 2007, and his subsequent conviction in 2010, for alleged support to and linkages with Naxalites in Chhatisgarh. Dr Sen, a physician by profession, was known for treating the poor tribal population in Chhatisgarh as well as for his vocal criticism of the government’s anti-Naxal operations in the belt.
There have been countless others since who have been charged with sedition, including eminent citizens such as author-activist Arundhati Roy, scientist E Rati Rao, Delhi University professor S A R Geelani, journalist Shuddhabrata Sengupta among many others.
The following visualization shows us some of the most prominent examples since 2009 from around the country, in which individuals were actually arrested and detained for raising their voices or harbouring ideologies that clashed with the state’s.
It would be fair to mention, however, that some of these arrests were apparently made on the basis of individual complaints with no explicit involvement of the government. That said, it does not detract from the fact that criticism of the state and its agents, or contrarianism in any form, often comes at a heavy price in modern-day India.
The tabular timeline can be seen here.