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9-day jail for Payal Rohatgi’s Nehru post: Is Congress as intolerant as BJP on free speech?

A local court in Rajasthan sent Bollywood actor Payal Rohatgi to judicial custody till 24 December for posting “objectionable” content against the Nehru-Gandhi family on social media.

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A local court in Rajasthan has sent Bollywood actor Payal Rohatgi to judicial custody till 24 December for posting “objectionable” content against the Nehru-Gandhi family on social media. She was booked under the IT Act in Ashok Gehlot’s Congress-ruled state after Youth Congress general secretary Charmesh Sharma filed a complaint in October.

ThePrint asks: 9-day jail for Payal Rohatgi’s Nehru post: Is Congress as intolerant as BJP on free speech?

Payal Rohatgi’s case exposes fault lines in Congress, which is now on a ventilator

Gopal Krishna Agarwal
BJP National Spokesperson

The Payal Rohatgi case is an unfortunate one. The BJP does not approve of maligning people who have been national leaders. While the party does not undermine the contributions of members of the Gandhi-Nehru family, some people might have reservations about their personal lives and their political contributions. However, the witch hunt against them is uncalled-for.

Yet this draws attention to the fact that the Congress, which otherwise tries to projects itself as the protector of freedom of expression, is jittery when it comes to criticism about the Gandhi-Nehru family. For the party, the Gandhis are above public scrutiny. They consider themselves the sole torch bearers of India’s freedom struggle. The Congress must remember that its political leaders, who are in the public eye, are answerable to the people of India.

I expected the Congress party to be generous and restrict itself to just condemning Payal Rohatgi, but it chose to go to extreme lengths to do what it felt right.

Having said that, we must remember that freedom of expression is not absolute and cannot encroach on other people’s feelings and sentiments.

There is no need for the BJP to get involved in this debate about an individual, we will let the courts and the Rajasthan police handle the matter.

Payal Rohatgi’s case exposes faultlines in the grand old party, which is now surviving on a ventilator.

Also read: Authoritarian streak among Indians on the rise and it’s helping BJP’s hard Right turn

People like Payal Rohatgi distort history and they should be thrown into jail

Raghuveer Singh Meena
Vice President, Rajasthan Pradesh Congress Committee

All I have to say in this entire matter is that people like Payal Rohatgi should be sent to jail without any possibility of bail. People who make such comments and put up posts on social media need to realise that what they say can be misinterpreted in many ways. Moreover, they also need to be aware of the effect their post can have on the youth.

People like Payal Rohatgi distort history and they should be thrown into jail. It seems like these people have no understanding of what is socially acceptable. The comments she has made do not come under the ambit of free speech. It is important to note that one cannot say anything in the name of free speech. Somewhere, a line has to be drawn.

Moreover, the comparison between the Congress and the BJP is a false one. The Congress party has history and truth on its side. The party’s contribution in India’s freedom struggle is a case in point. But the BJP has no such history and had no role to play in the freedom movement. The language used by its leaders and the statements they make are despicable

At least one member from Gandhi family should have publicly stated that Payal’s arrest is uncalled-for

Rasheed Kidwai
ORF visiting fellow and author of ‘Sonia, a Biography’ and ’24 Akbar Road’

Payal Rohatgi’s case is not the first instance where the Congress has been caught napping on the sensitive issue of freedom of speech. The non-involvement of the party’s top brass in the matter so far shows this might as well be a case of administrative oversight. At least one member from the Gandhi family — Sonia, Rahul or Priyanka — should have issued a public pronouncement that the treatment meted out to Payal Rohatgi is uncalled-for. They should have taken the lead in pardoning her in spite of her otherwise obnoxious and atrocious remarks.

Payal Rohatgi, famous for thoughtlessly trying to sound like a Right-wing cheerleader, has reportedly expressed regret and has verbally apologised.

Priyanka Gandhi, who pardoned the convicted killers of her father Rajiv Gandhi, had earned all-round praise for displaying compassion and empathy. It was, therefore, expected from Priyanka and other Gandhis to show magnanimity and compassion. It would have enhanced their public stature. It is still not too late.

As the Congress President and the torch bearer of the Nehru-Gandhi parivar, Sonia, can still direct Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot and his deputy Sachin Pilot to ensure that Payal is released without further delay.

Also read: Shashi Tharoor: I want a New India where Rahul Bajaj can invest & speak fearlessly to govt

As a democracy, India has not fared very well. All political parties have failed to uphold free speech

Rahul Verma
Fellow at Centre for Policy Research and PhD candidate at UC Berkeley

Political commentators have often claimed that India is an election-only democracy, i.e., it fulfils the minimalist understanding of democracy of free and fair elections and a peaceful transfer of power. However, when you expand the definition of democracy, especially in cases of freedom of speech and expression, the track record of Indian democracy has not been that great.

It is not only the BJP or the Congress that has failed to uphold freedom of speech and expression, but many regional parties are too seemingly ‘intolerant’ of free speech if it does not suit their political agenda.

While coming down heavily on free speech, which is guaranteed in the Constitution under Article 19(1), politicians quite frivolously use the argument of reasonable restrictions to free speech under Article 19(2).

Successive governments at the Centre and in the states have allowed the misuse of these two clauses of Article 19. Courts have often observed that the argument of free speech cannot be used to make unfounded statements that are incendiary in nature — there is a very thin line between free speech and incendiary statements.

Many of India’s laws regarding speech and expression are from the colonial era, the sedition law being just one example. They have been used to suppress dissenting voices.

There should be a mechanism to deal with miscreants who make incendiary remarks under the garb of freedom of speech. To be able to do that, India needs a proper framework. It is quite appalling that in a democracy like India, lawmakers or even the judiciary have not given a proper thought to this problem that is becoming a recurring feature.

One falls foul of freedom of expression when dissent is suppressed, not disinformation

Deeksha Bhardwaj
Reporter, ThePrint

Payal Rohatgi’s case is not a peculiar one. In a world where hate speech is the norm and fake news is social currency, this incident hardly comes as a surprise. What RohatgI did (and it was not the result of a simple google search — it took time) is spread disinformation.

Speaking in strictly legal terms, if Motilal Nehru was alive, he could have sued Rohatgi for defamation. This is something the BJP did when the opposition pointed fingers at it; Rahul Gandhi is still fighting two defamation cases — one for saying “why (do) all thieves share the Modi surname”.

The Rohatgi case has put liberals, the champions of free speech, in a fix. They allege the BJP clamps down on freedom of expression, hence they must condemn the Congress for doing so too. The impression of political neutrality is necessary and is of paramount importance. Does Rohatgi deserve to be punished for spreading salacious gossip?

But when one talks about freedom of expression, it must not be in binaries. It is not about the BJP or the Congress, or about what is morally right and morally wrong.

One falls foul of freedom of expression when dissent is suppressed, not disinformation. An attack on hate speech is not the same as an attack on free speech and we should be wary of conflating the two.

By Revathi Krishnan, journalist at ThePrint

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  1. Rahul Gandhi can call our PRime Minister Chor and get away with it. But call his incompetent, stupid great grandfather illegitimate and born out of wedlock, that becomes the most gory Crime. The Gandhis are a bunch of free loaders, living on subsidised Govt accommodation, with free security and medical expenses and tip of that we pay for their vipasana visits

  2. Deeksha Bhardwaj will decide what is hate and what is dissent. So when Modi has been given a clean chit by every government agencies and committees many of whom conducted investigations under Congress regime. Nothing hyperbolic here. Now shouldn’t Sonia Gandhi apologize for maut ke Saudagar comment or if she repeats then she be put to jail.

  3. Not to miss the forest for the trees, but jailing someone for disinformation, regardless of its sophistication, is rather unappetizing especially if these facilities look like what I’ve seen in movies. One would be scarred for life.
    Retributive justice may be useful as deterrence in violent crimes, but why can’t we make do with a retraction or an apology here?

  4. Ms. Payal should be free immediately if the congress wants to honor the secular fabric of our country and endorses freedom of speech. All it is doing is the same as BJP who quarantines any opposition that emerges as a threat. If the Gandhi’s are big then would be the Critics as they are subjected under watch 24×7 from all sides. The cost of being on a centre stage with highest status in politics invites many critics in day to day activity. Are they going to subject any one in states they rule to such an act of detention for a free expression of views. In any sense this is not a fare idea.

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