CPI(M) member and journalist-turned-politician John Brittas received a show cause notice from Rajya Sabha chairperson Jagdeep Dhankar for writing a newspaper article criticising Union Home Minister Amit Shah.
The article, published by The Indian Express in February, was about a controversial speech by Shah in Mangaluru in Karnataka a few days earlier.
Addressing BJP workers in Mangaluru, barely 50 km from Kerala’s northern town of Kasargod, Shah took an indirect swipe at Left-ruled Kerala by claiming the ruling BJP in Karnataka had kept the state safe from anti-nationals.
“There is Kerala in your neighbourhood. I do not wish to say more,” Shah told the gathering.
In his article, Brittas pointed out that Shah’s targeting of Kerala was out of desperation as “Kerala remains a showpiece of redistribution-oriented economic policies and growth, enjoying social parameters on par with the Nordic countries”.
He said that fact is annoying news for the BJP.
“There is no rule that the Union home minister should know the Indian Penal Code by heart. So Amit Shah can be pardoned for probably not knowing about Section 153 A of IPC, which deals with promoting enmity between different groups on the grounds of religion, race, place of birth, residence, language, etc, and doing acts prejudicial to the maintenance of harmony,” the article by Brittas began.
Dhankar issued the show cause notice on a complaint filed by Kerala-based BJP leader P Sudheer, who termed the article as “seditious”.
With the issue courting controversy and triggering a nationwide discussion, Brittas spoke on the gravity of the matter in an exclusive interaction with South First. Edited excerpts:
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Q. Despite being a mainstream journalist for long and now a parliamentarian, you have received a show cause notice for writing a newspaper article. The charge is that its content is seditious. How do you view the development?
A. I was shocked and baffled at receiving the notice. Last week, the Rajya Sabha secretariat served me the notice, directing me to meet Dhankar, who is also the country’s vice president. Though I orally briefed him about the circumstances that led to the writing of the article, another notice reached me later, asking for a written explanation.
I am not treating it as something personal. We feel it is an infringement on individual rights and the right to expression. It’s something unheard of in the whole history of free India. More than anything else, it is a stern warning to the media against carrying articles critical of those in power. It attempts to stifle media freedom rather than personally targeting a Rajya Sabha member.
By making it a subject of a nationwide discussion, the BJP-RSS is giving a clear message to the media in the country against maintaining critical spaces, and, instead, to adopt a policy of subservience. The Indian media has a long tradition of publishing opinion pieces highly critical of those in power. Such an attitude is vital for the future of democracy. We all have to strive to protect that right.
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Q. But they say the article is seditious, and aimed at showing the Union home minister in poor light. Is it true?
A. It was an opinion piece crafted in a scathing but democratic way, without anything libellous. The right to dissent is the essence of democracy. Those in power would necessarily face criticism as their policies and programmes are subject to public scrutiny.
When the Union home minister attempted to create enmity between communities in a state like Kerala, known for social solidarity and communal amity, I used my democratic right, and my credentials as a responsible politician, to write that newspaper article. It was written with responsibility and in good faith. It was carried by one of the topmost newspapers in India.
All this is part of the democratic discourse guaranteed under the Constitution. Political and social criticism does not amount to character assassination. There is no question of sedition there. By raising the charge of sedition, they are twisting the facts and manipulating the context. Democratic discourse must be continued.
Q. Is there any law or restriction against members of Parliament writing in newspapers, journals or online platforms?
A. As per my knowledge, there is no such restriction. Common rules related to objectivity and good faith apply to all. In my case, I am not claiming any impunity as an MP. I wish to defend my rights as a law-abiding citizen to write and publish articles in the larger public interest.
Here, the ruling party filed a complaint with the Rajya Sabha chairman, and the chairman summoned me formally for a meeting to discuss the complaint that I raised some critical questions against a top leader of the ruling party. Raising critical questions against those at the helm is the duty of the Opposition. It is also the duty of an independent and free media. I stand by what I stated in the article. It was in good faith. It involved nothing personal.
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Q. Your article, ‘Perils of Propaganda’, attempts to defend Kerala against the Sangh Parivar accusation it is a breeding ground of Islamic terrorism. Why are they afraid of Kerala? Why is even the Union home minister making such claims?
A. It’s all part of an organised propaganda to discredit Kerala, which has always remained elusive to hate politics. There were previous attempts to term Kerala as a mini-Pakistan. Despite being strong outside, the BJP leadership is frustrated as it continuously fails to make any electoral inroads in Kerala. The state, with over 55 percent Hindu population, continues to reject the kind of politics they are pursuing.
In the 2021 Assembly election, they got hardly 12.36 percent of the votes, despite high-voltage propaganda. They were not able to win even a single seat. An irate BJP continues to disapprove of the gains of Kerala. The prime minister once termed Kerala as equal to Somalia with regard to starving people. That was in contradiction to even official data available with the Union government.
In my article, I was responding to the charges made by the home minister. A respected newspaper agreed to publish it. Now they are finding fault with the article. It is all part of the ongoing vilification campaigns. They wish to keep the media under pressure and prevent it from carrying opinions from the Opposition.
Q. In the article, you have described the Union home minister as someone unaware of section 153A of the Indian Penal Code, which deals with promoting enmity between different groups. Is it right?
A. No. I just reminded the Union home minister that his comment violates this section. I stand by that opinion. Those in power must be concerned about not violating sections of the IPC. Leaders and ministers must be responsible about making comments about regions, peoples and communities. On what basis did the Union home minister find Kerala unsafe and Karnataka safe?
This is not the first time Shah has made such innuendos against Kerala and its people, who oppose majoritarian politics. In such circumstances, I must remind him of Kerala’s gains in literacy, public health, living standards, job generation, and poverty alleviation. Even Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath is commenting adversely about Kerala’s otherwise robust public health system.
Q. Will you restrict yourself in the future while commenting on sensitive issues?
A. I have been a journalist for several decades and always remained responsible. In the Rajya Sabha, I have never acted in a way that belittles the standards set by eminent parliamentarians. I know the rules, and I am acting within the rules.
So there is no question of restraining myself. I will continue to write, talk and act in a way that upholds the values of democratic discourse. We will resist all attempts to belittle Kerala, where people live peacefully. We are proud of our gains and will continue talking about them. No BJP-ruled state can emulate Kerala’s secular credentials and development.
Q. Do you fear any repercussions?
A. Not at all. The Rajya Sabha chairman would not go further on the issue as he is an eminent legal expert with a clear grasp of individual rights and the right to expression guaranteed under the Constitution. He would protect the right to dissent and the right to criticise those who are in power.
I am still to give a written reply to the notice. It would be comprehensive and would take some more days. Nobody can silence me. As I said, my concern is largely about the way the Indian media is taking the development. If they refuse to carry opinion pieces criticising the government, that would benefit the Sangh Parivar and its intimidation strategy. We must not allow that. Let dissenting voices and opinions thrive in the media.