Indian elections are the best time to test the limits of free speech. Restraint evaporates in the heat of campaigning and politicians mouth extreme non-sense. One such politician is Giriraj Singh, a nominee of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) from the state of Jharkhand. An arrest warrant has been issued against Singh for essentially suggesting that those oppose his party’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi are supporters of Pakistan and they should perhaps be banished to that country.
I am not sure if Singh’s comments rise to the level where he should be arrested for harboring and expressing what is regarded by India’s Election Commission “ highly inflammatory” views. Are those “highly inflammatory” views? Probably but they are just views. The Election Commission, which monitors all public conduct of politicians during the election time, has said allowing Singh to continue to hold public rallies “will have the effect of prejudicially affecting the public tranquility and law and order.” That is a tricky assertion to challenge because it is fairly common that public rallies degenerate into law and order problem in India at the slightest provocation. Oftentimes, it takes much less than what Singh has said to incite violence. So I remain conflicted.
A petition seeking Singh’s arrest was filed in a court in Bokaro by police and an arrest warrant issued promptly against him. As inflammatory speeches go what Singh said was close to being one but it was still only a speech. Its content was highly deplorable and symptomatic of a bigoted mind. That still does not add up to an arrest in my book. Politicians like Singh abound in India and the BJP seems to particularly attract them. There is a reason why Singh and his ilk feel encouraged to spout such intolerance of dissent. The party has been known not to seriously challenge such utterances within its ranks. Of course, it has glibly explained it away calling it interparty democracy and freedom of views. For once though the BJP has acted tough and reprimanded Singh and the leadership, including Modi himself, has explicitly distanced itself from him. To that extent it has done its bit.
However, the larger question of the freedom of speech still remains. While recognizing that that right is not absolute, one must also question whether Singh’s comments are such that they call for his arrest. As I said, I am not sure if that is the case.
My concern is equally about the logistics of Pakistan being able to handle such a large scale banishment if it were indeed to take place. There are massive numbers of legions of Modi opponents and detractors just as there are as many of his supporters. Notwithstanding its well-known hospitality, Pakistan does not have the wherewithal to host so many banished Indians. It is just not practical. So let us reach accommodation here. Giriraj Singh and those who subscribe to his ridiculous views can call the areas of India where Modi’s opponents live “mini-Pakistan”.