'The government or the ruling party has indicated indirectly that you are not supposed to publish anything critical of the government or the senior functionaries of the government.'
Did you know that a Rajya Sabha MP was summoned by Rajya Sabha Chairman Jagdeep Dhankar seeking an explanation for a newspaper article he wrote, critical of Home Minister Amit A Shah.
The MP is John Brittas, a Rajya Sabha member from Kerala.
"This is not an action against me, this is precisely against the media freedom of the country," John Brittas, a journalist turned MP, seen, below, tells Rediff.com's Shobha Warrier.
Were you taken aback when you received a summons from the Rajya Sabha chairman asking for an explanation about an article you wrote?
It was unprecedented. But I won't say I was taken aback. I was at a loss to understand how it involved the office of the chairman.
Nevertheless, since I have high respect for the office of the chairman of the Rajya Sabha, I agreed to be present for the meeting he wanted.
When I met him, there were a few higher-level officers also present.
What was the conversation about?
The conversation was about the complaint he had received with regard to an article I had written in the Indian Express.
Since I had not seen the complaint, he showed it to me.
The complaint was in very strong words and charged me with sedition, etc.
I told him that I had written the article as a citizen of India.
As he wanted a formal written explanation, I said I needed to have a copy of the complaint. So, he gave me a copy so that I could respond to it properly.
The complaint was from a BJP member from Kerala...
He is not just a member of the BJP; he is the general secretary of the BJP's Kerala unit.
How did he make your criticism of the home minister seditious in the complaint?
I am at a loss to understand that. I think we should go back to the (British) Crown. That anything that was said against the Crown (during the British occupation of India) was seditious!
And the very complaint has been submitted at a juncture when the Supreme Court is reviewing whether the idea of sedition is in tune with democratic practices.
And the Centre has filed an affidavit that they are at an advanced stage of reviewing the archaic or a colonial provision.
I find that there is a mismatch between what has been submitted by the Government of India and what has been submitted by the functionary of the ruling political party.
Has anyone made such complaints about an MP to the Rajya Sabha chairman before?
To the best of my knowledge, there is no precedent of anyone making such a complaint.
Also, there is no precedent of the Rajya Sabha secretariat taking cognisance to such a complaint.
So, this could be the first in the history of this country.
Does that mean any politician criticising another politician in an interview or an article can be questioned by another citizen?
When I said I was a bit baffled, it was because I had not come across such a situation.
What I wrote was in response to a remark made by the home minister while he was in Karnataka. He had said, beware, there is Kerala near you.
The inference was a very negative connotation with regard to Kerala. He meant that Kerala is bad.
Kerala is not Pakistan, Kerala is not an enemy country, Kerala is part of the country.
Kerala is not anything that is against the spirit of nationalism or patriotism.
That's why I started the article like this. 'There is no rule that the Union home minister should know the Indian Penal Code by heart. So Amit Shah can be pardoned for probably not knowing about Section 153 A of IPC, which deals with "promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion, race, place of birth, residence, language, etc and doing acts prejudicial to maintenance of harmony". This section may be read along with Article 1 of the Indian Constitution -- India, that is Bharat, shall be a Union of states.'
There is nothing seditious in it.
I can very well say that what he demonstrated or said was not in the spirit of the provisions of the IPC or the Constitution.
That's why I had to remind him of that. That's why I referred to Section 153A of the IPC.
Have we reached a stage that the prime minister or home minister or anyone in power is above criticism?
That's essentially why I said, I was baffled and confused by the complaint and the summons.
I don't want any special privilege as a Member of Parliament. But as a citizen, Fundamental Right 19 1 (a) clearly says that I have freedom of speech and expression in this country.
So, I was just dwelling on my Fundamental Right of freedom of speech and expression as a citizen can. This is the basic part of the Constitution.
It was no personal remark against the home minister. It was in response to a remark he made publicly.
There were no innuendo, there was no aspersion cast on the home minister.
It was a plain response to a remark he made against the state of Kerala and it was hugely debated in Kerala too. In fact, the chief minister of Kerala also came out with a statement on that.
I would also say that I was contributing to the debate after I was approached by the Indian Express to write an article because there was a controversy. It was a healthy debate actually.
Where will this kind of a situation where people accuse each other of sedition lead to?
That's a question the country has been pondering over for a long time now.
We have seen how innocent people are put behind bars, how UAPA has been rampantly misused, and how you are bringing in provisions like sedition on the drop of a hat.
This is precisely the reason why the Supreme Court took it on itself to hear the petition on sedition.
What about press freedom? You were a journalist. You were summoned for an article you wrote.
In the recent Global Press Freedom Index, India has slipped further to 161 out of 180 countries...
If they had considered this incident of me writing an article in the Indian Express, it would have gone down further!
When I say I am concerned, it was not because it was a complaint against me. I am more concerned because this is a complaint against the media.
This is a warning to the media that you are not supposed to write critical pieces.
What is left today were the open pages, and now the government or the ruling party has indicated indirectly that you are not supposed to publish anything critical of the government or the senior functionaries of the government.
So, I would say this is not an action against me, this is precisely against the media freedom of the country.