Ever since the Central Government gained power their modus operandi is to curb resistance. Journalists, activists, professors and students have borne the heavier brunt of the Centre’s policy. So entrenched is the need to maintain a positive image and silence protestors that even during the middle of a raging pandemic, the government’s priorities are yet again misplaced. The arrest in Delhi over poster circulation is a recent example.
Mission VaccineMaitri and International Publicity
The Central government started a ‘VaccineMaitri’ campaign in January of this year. The purpose of this initiative was a “goodwill” gesture to ensure the neighbouring countries have more than enough supplies of vaccines to administer. India started manufacturing two vaccines in 2021 – Covishield and Covaxin. Covishield is manufactured by the Serum Institute of India and is Oxford’s AstraZeneca while Covaxin is made by Bharat Biotech and co-developed by Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR).
In an interview with The Print, a source close to the government stated Covaxin was exported to Mongolia, Oman, Myanmar, Philippines, Bahrain, Maldives and Mauritius. While Covishield was sent to Bhutan, Afghanistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Seychelles. The government, so concerned with their global image, especially after the mismanagement during the second wave, reportedly has exported more vaccines than are available in India now. As of April 2021, India has exported almost 66 million vaccines. But at what cost?
The government did not cancel the drive even after India started recording almost four lakh cases on a daily basis. This made the general public ask very pertinent and valid questions regarding the export of vaccines and its availability to citizens.
Arrest Over Legitimate Question – A cause for concern
Delhi Police, which responds directly to the Home Ministry, on May 12, arrested around 17 people for circulating or putting up ‘offensive’ posters against the Prime Minister. The slogan in the posters read “Modiji hamare bachhon ki vaccine videsh kyun bhej diya?” (Modiji, why did you send the vaccines meant for our children to other countries?).
By May 17th, the number of arrests reached 25, with 17 First Information Reports (FIRs) being filed in Delhi over posters criticising the government. These FIRs were registered under Section 188 (disobedience to order duly promulgated by public servant) of the Indian Penal Code and Section 3 of the Delhi Prevention of Defacement of Public Property Act among others. The Police Officers, in an interview with The Tribune, claim FIRs were registered in North east Delhi, Central Delhi, Rohini, East Delhi, Dwarka and Shahdara
The Delhi Police pinpointed AAP Leader, Arvind Gautam as the mastermind behind the posters. The police seized posters from a resident of Sultanpuri area, Anil Kumar, who is also an e-rickshaw driver. According to The Indian Express, all those arrested have been temporarily released on bail.
The said posters were put across the city days after the Delhi government alerted the Central government about vaccine shortages in the national capital along with other states. Reports have also surfaced claiming that the people who put up the posters were asked to do so for a sum of five hundred rupees. The circulation of these posters has made an important statement—the nation holds the government accountable for the vaccine exports and the subsequent deaths due to the pandemic and is demanding answers. But the police clampdown on the voices and the demands of the citizens raises even more red flags. When is the government going to address the raging vaccine shortage issue? Why are immediate concerns being brushed under the carpet instead of taking much needed action?
In a democracy like India, freedom of speech is a fundamental right and the arrest is a direct threat to that. This right gives individuals the ground to question the functioning of the government. However, this is not the first time the Centre has abused its control over the police force or the power it holds. A similar situation occurred during the Anti-CAA protest. In Uttar Pradesh’s capital city Lucknow, numerous people were arrested for participating in the protest, their home addresses along with a photo was put on billboards across the city. It was a breach of privacy then and the recent arrest is a move bordering on insensitivity and apathy now.
Critique from Opposition
The arrest has garnered a series of raised eyebrows from the Opposition and the citizens alike. Several people took to Twitter to express concerns over the matter and shared the alleged posters widely to show support for those arrested. The move by the Delhi Police has stirred quite a political reaction. Congress Leaders, AAP Leaders and other Independent Leaders stood in solidarity with those who were arrested. Rahul Gandhi took to Twitter to share the poster with the #ArrestMeToo hashtag.
Following him, Congress leader Jairam Ramesh further asked how the circulation of posters was a ‘crime‘ worthy of arrest. Manish Sisodia (Delhi’s Deputy Chief Minister and AAP Leader) and Mahua Moitra (TMC Leader) also expressed their agitation over this matter. P Chidambaram, Congress Leader also took to Twitter to express disbelief over crumbling freedom of speech. Congress spokesperson Pawan Khera discussed how the people of India are asking tough questions and demanding their rightful share of vaccines, hospital beds and medicines.
On Sunday, AAP Leader Durgesh Pathak took responsibility for the posters. As reported by Hindustan Times, Pathak at a press conference said, “The AAP is behind the posters. I am behind the posters. If you want to arrest people, please arrest us (senior leaders) and our MLAs, but please stop harassing poor people. We will not stop. We will make it a national campaign.”
Meanwhile, legal experts termed this abuse of power “selective” and a direct result of the government’s inability to handle criticism. Mehmood Pracha in an interview with The Print said, “BJP workers have put up a majority of the posters in Delhi, but we have not seen any FIRs under the defacement act. Right now, this government wants to silence every voice criticising how they dealt with the Covid crisis.”
The government, instead of arresting voices of dissent and digging a large hole for itself, needs to work on this criticism and come through with concrete vaccination plans for the youth and the nation.
Featured Image Source: Hindustan Times