In the race to the bottom of overzealous policing, Bihar and Uttarakhand appear to have taken a giant, blundering stride. The Bihar police has threatened that the might of the “police verification report” will be used against those indulging in “criminal activity” during street protests and demonstrations — to deny them a passport or government jobs or bank loans or financial grants. The Uttarakhand police has gone further and declared its intent of monitoring social media for “anti-national” posts. This surveillance project comes with a free counselling session: Those the police deems to have crossed the line will be advised to do better. If they persist in speaking out, the police records will categorise them as “anti-national”. Both proposals expose the lawkeepers’ wilful misinterpretation of the law they are meant to uphold. Nothing in the Passports Act, 1967, for example, empowers the police to intimidate protestors with “such grave consequences”; on the contrary, several court rulings have held that a passport application or a passport renewal application cannot be denied even on the grounds of existing criminal cases. Under no provisions of the IPC can the police use an imprecise term such as “anti-national” to profile and harass a citizen for her views and expressions on social media.
This is the second instance in recent times in which the Bihar police, in the Nitish Kumar regime, has abused its power to encroach on the personal liberties of citizens. Last month, it slapped a gag order on all criticism of the government online by designating it as cyber-crime. The same prickliness to dissent appears to motivate this current order that, in effect, seeks to browbeat protestors in the name of law and order. For a fourth-term chief minister, whose political career was forged in the crucible of protests and agitation, who had once been hailed as the great liberal middle-ground hope, surely Nitish Kumar must know that governance or sushasan must be about more than wielding the stick.
The right to protest is inalienable to a democracy and its citizens. But, increasingly, the Indian political class appears to barricade itself behind political authority to deflect questions. It appears to see the protestor on the street or the critical voice on the internet as an adversary and not a legitimate participant in the process of democracy. This is the kind of politics that, ultimately, licenses the public shaming of anti-CAA protestors in UP or the cordons of spiked roads and concertina wires on the national capital’s borders. Allowing the police to vet citizens based on their participation in protests or online behaviour is a dangerous, slippery slope. Before other states clone this spectacularly undemocratic idea, it must be binned.