The Bihar government’s decision to designate “objectionable and indecent” comments made online against the state government or its ministers, MLAs, MPs and officials as cyber-crime is one more example of elected governments abusing their power to buy themselves a Teflon shield against criticism, dissent and accountability. In November last year, the Kerala government had brought in an amendment making “threatening or abusive” posts punishable by a jail term, but withdrew it after an uproar against the unconstitutional move. Bihar is now sallying down the same path of undemocratic excess. A circular issued by the Bihar police’s economic offences unit, the nodal agency for action against cyber-crime, asks principal secretaries and secretaries of various departments to bring instances of such “objectionable” posts to its notice so that action can be taken under provisions of the IT Act and the Indian Penal Code.
This gag order suggests that Chief Minister Nitish Kumar perceives the freedom of speech and expression guaranteed to his state’s citizens as minor, dispensable hazards of democracy. It is not. In his last three terms, Nitish Kumar’s focus on the tangibles of development, from roads to law and order, education of girls and empowerment of women, had earned him the calling card of “Sushashan Babu”. But by shutting down uncomfortable, even angry and unruly, criticism against his government and its administrators, the JD(U) leader risks putting the enterprise of his much-touted “good governance” in peril. Unlike autocracies, democracies work by casting the net of experiences and objections wide, by refusing to believe in the vanity projects of one-man or one-woman or one-party solutions. The free exchange of ideas and opinions, especially in a hierarchical society prone to capture by dominant interests, is the feedback loop without which governance cannot become either just, equitable or effective. It not only helps citizens flag corruption, or the disenfranchised to contest decisions that affect their lives, but also saves the executive from the arrogance of its own infallibility — by leaving the door open for correction. Simply put, free speech is central to good governance. Increasingly, however, democracy is being seen as a competitive winner-takes-all electioneering race, in which the electoral mandate is used to insulate the government from criticism and accountability. In this paranoid view, all potential criticism equals motivated attacks on the state — this anxiety manifests in the way governments are using a slew of IPC provisions — to arrest journalists and comics for a tweet or a slogan or a Facebook post or a joke.
The Bihar government’s new circular — its imprecise framing about what constitutes “indecent” and who makes that subjective call — is set up for misuse and harassment of citizens. It is an unconstitutional diktat that will expend precious administrative energy on policing the internet and cancelling government critics. That is anything but sushasan. Chief Minister Nitish Kumar must withdraw it immediately.