While speaking about Goebbels, a Nazi politician and the Minister of Propaganda of Germany between 1933 – 1945 and one of Hitler’s closes associates, Noam Chomsky noted that “Goebbels was in favour of free speech for views he liked. So was Stalin.” He went on to state that as defenders of free speech and as opponents of fascism “If you’re really in favour of free speech, then you’re in favour of freedom of speech for precisely the views you despise. Otherwise, you’re not in favour of free speech.”
This week saw the arrest of Arnab Goswami by the Raigad Police. Goswami is often equated by many to Goebbels for his inflammatory rhetoric and for his channel’s chequered history on reporting facts rather than fake news. The Bharatiya Janata Party has come out fighting against Goswami’s arrest. These statements of support and vociferous criticism of the Maharashtra police for arresting Goswami have been made on the plank that it is an attack on freedom of speech and of media and a display of fascism. There are few political parties who are more familiar with fascist practices than the BJP but by coming out batting for Goswami in this particular instance, the BJP has exposed the inconvenient relationship it has with a fundamental principle of democracy – the right to free speech and due process.
According to the Maharashtra police, the case is not of free speech at all but that of abetment of suicide. Goswami has been arrested in the death case of an interior designer, Anvay Naik who allegedly died by suicide in May, 2018. There was a suicide note that was purportedly written by Anvay Naik where it was alleged that Arnab Goswami had not cleared massive dues that were owed to him and his design firm. Both Anvay Naik and his mother Kumud Naik died by suicide subsequently. The note in fact mentions three individuals who were allegedly responsible for the death of Anvay and is mother. These are Goswami, Feroz Shaikh and Nitesh Darda. Other than Goswami, the other two individuals have also been arrested by the Maharashtra Police under the relevant sections of the Indian Penal Code.
Another case which recently attracted a lot of media attention was that of Rhea Chakraborty. In this particular case, there was no suicide note that was left behind blaming Rhea Chakraborty, as per reports there was an absence of evidence that pointed to homicide and even the forensic report from AIIMS appeared to rule out homicide as a cause of death. However, Ms. Chakraborty and a number of others were arrested by Central Government agencies in connection with the death of Sustant Singh Rajput. Arnab and certain other channels ran hashtags like #ArrestRhea, acting as judge, jury and executioner. However, at the time we did not hear a peep from the Home Minister, the BJP National President, Smriti Irani and other members of the Bharatiya Janata Party. We were instead advised to let law take its own course.
There are therefore two important questions that the BJP needs to introspect on. The first is why the case of Anvay Naik was closed. In the case there was a suicide note and apparently sufficient evidence, then why was the case closed in 2018 when the BJP government was in power in Maharashtra? I wholeheartedly agree with the BJP that no journalist should be targeted for questioning a government but just because a journalist has such apparent support from a ruling government that cabinet ministers come out batting for him, does it accord such a journalist any special benefits which makes him immune from the due process of law? One would think not. In fact the government at the time was so lacking in empathy that according to the family of the deceased, they were not even informed that the case had been closed and instead had to discover about its closure through a tweet that was put out by Republic TV, Goswami’s channel.
The other question that the BJP needs to inspect on is what is its relationship with free speech and with fascist tendencies. The chasm in the BJP’s approach towards following fascist practices when it comes to its apparent supporters and the treatment meted out to its critics cannot be wider. This new found support for Goswami has been markedly absent when it comes to Sudha Bharadwaj, a highly regarded human rights lawyer who has now been in prison without trial for over two years. Where was this government’s support when they arrested Fr. Stan Swamy or for Prashant Kanojia who was jailed for several months because of a defamatory post against the Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister and highlighting a scam where children were only being served salt and chapati instead of proper meals? There were by no means absent but were instead at the forefront of the attack on freedom of speech. The very persons who are today’s champions of “freedom of speech” were yesterday’s instigators in chief. The most ridiculous of these hypocritical takes came from my own state of Jharkhand where Mr. Raghubar Das criticised the treatment of Goswami. Perhaps he has forgotten about the time where when he was Chief Minister, an entrepreneur in Jharkhand spent 6 days in jail for posting a meme of Raghubar Das on Facebook. These are our new “champions of free speech”.
In the present case, even though I think Arnab has singlehanded caused great damage to our democracy, with his hateful rhetoric that has little to do with journalism, I would hope that he is treated with due process and is given the same rights that were not available to Sudha Bharadwaj or Fr. Stan Swamy or numerous others. I also hope that the BJP President, the Home Minister, Smriti Irani, et al. can extend the same courtesy to the people who disagree or criticise them.
(The author is a member of the Indian National Congress, a former Lok Sabha MP and an ex-IPS officer. Views expressed are personal.)