Journalist | Writer | Analyst
22 January 2015
An Attack on the Right to Liberty
The recent off-loading of a Greenpeace activist at Delhi airport as she was about to board a flight for London is one of the most brazen assaults on a citizen’s right to liberty and free expression that India has seen in decades. It is also an intimation of war by a government that seems especially intolerant of dissent.
The right to travel abroad is part of the fundamental rights of a citizen; in its landmark Maneka Gandhi judgment, the Supreme Court saw it as an intrinsic part of the citizen’s right to liberty. Without it, the court felt, the citizen cannot enjoy full liberty. And of what use would her right to free speech be if the government could dictate where, and to whom, that speech may be addressed?
The young activist, Priya Pillai, was going to brief British members of parliament on the activities of a British multinational company in the Mahan area of Madhya Pradesh. It is irrelevant whether Pillai’s arguments about the company, Essar Power, are correct. She is entitled to her views and is free to raise the issue of environmental degradation with the Indian government, as Greenpeace has done. She is also free to discuss the matter with British legislators who invited her because they suspect this particular British firm might have compromised British regulations governing the operation of national companies abroad. In short, Pillai’s advocacy on the coal mining issue in Mahan breaks no Indian law regardless of where she speaks or writes. Why she was stopped from going abroad remains something of a mystery since no one from either the home ministry, which controls the immigration department at the airport, or the Intelligence Bureau (IB), which is supposed to have issued a lookout circular against Pillai, has been willing to provide a single reason on the record.
The very fact that 10 days have elapsed without any official defence of what happened suggests the act of off-loading was malicious and lacking in proper legal sanction. A government that is allowed to get away with the abuse of power in this case will almost certainly be emboldened to do so again, and again. That is why all those concerned about democracy, civil liberties and the rule of law in India should demand that the authorities come clean. Corporate India must also raise its voice. Big business may resent Greenpeace India’s criticisms and may consider environmentalists to be anti-growth. But surely even it knows what can happen if violations of law, and the abandonment of due process, become the norm.
Pillai was in possession of a valid passport, visa and air ticket. The ticket was purchased by Greenpeace International and some not-so-bright spark in the IB has latched on to that fact to claim, anonymously of course, that this was a violation of the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act, or FCRA. But this is simply not true.
Broadly speaking, the FCRA governs two activities: (i) the receipt of foreign funds and (ii) the acceptance of foreign hospitality by organizations and individuals in India. Last year, the government instructed the Reserve Bank of India not to release Greenpeace’s inbound remittances without prior clearance. (the Delhi High Court struck down this action of the Union government earlier this week.)
According to the Act, air tickets fall under the category of foreign hospitality. However, FCRA only requires public servants, legislators and official functionaries such as judges to seek permission from the government before accepting such hospitality and not other citizens. Of course, this requirement can be extended to other classes of individuals and organizations under special circumstances but the government has either not done so, or has not informed the affected individuals and organizations that they need official permission before accepting an air ticket.
Even if the foreign purchase of a ticket were to be considered a crime, the appropriate response of the government should have been to charge Pillai under the appropriate statute. Since she has not been charged, nor has Greenpeace been notified of any change in its status regarding the acceptance of foreign hospitality, it is safe to assume the decision to off-load her was taken purely on political grounds. And this is what is so dangerous.
Today, the IB has decided that it will not allow a citizen to travel abroad because what she has to say will supposedly undermine the Indian economy and the national interest. Tomorrow, the agency might move to prevent the dissemination of those views by Indians in newspapers and conferences abroad. The next step will be the criminalization of those views within India itself. Is this what democracy is coming down to? Intelligence officers sniffing through speeches and articles in order to identify and purge those that are anti-development and thus anti-national?
Since the Narendra Modi government and its apologists tend to see a foreign hand behind every adverse development, one must say this: If Indian companies are at liberty to make presentations and seek partners abroad for their activities in India, is it so terrible for trade unions, social and environmental movements, women’s groups and adivasis to do the same thing? Regulate the flow of funds, by all means, if that’s what the law prescribes. But don’t cross the Rubicon and start regulating the right to life and liberty.
Siddharth Varadarajan is a senior fellow at the Centre for Public Affairs and Critical Theory, Shiv Nadar University.