The registration of cases against some senior journalists and Congress MP Shashi Tharoor for their “misleading” social media posts on the Republic Day violence during the farmers’ protests in Delhi, by the U.P. and M.P. police is an instance of fishing for malice where there is none. The Gautama Buddha Nagar police have clearly gone overboard in their response to tweets that reflected an early, and factually incorrect, piece of information that a farmer who had died during the tractor rally in Delhi had fallen to a police bullet. Later reports said he had died when a tractor overturned during the protests. The police have invoked the offences of sedition, conspiracy, promotion of enmity between different sections, and breach of harmony between groups. Besides, they have sought to portray it as a threat to national security and an attempt to instigate violence. A similar FIR has been filed on the basis of a complaint in Bhopal, but it invokes only sections relating to promotion of enmity and ill-will. It is apparent, and also strange, that the complainants and the police have sought to link the violence on January 26 with the circulation of a piece of misleading information for a short period. For one thing, the clashes between some of the protesters and the police had already started when the lone death among the protesters occurred; and, second, the position was clarified in a short while.
As the Editors’ Guild of India has pointed out , it was natural for journalists to report emerging details on a day of protest and action at a time when several reports were coming from eyewitnesses on the ground and the police. It is a matter of concern that there is an attempt to portray these early versions as intentionally malicious. There is little surprise in the attempt by the police to invoke Section 124A of the IPC (sedition) at the slightest pretext. It is part of the now-familiar practice of weaving a narrative of an imagined threat to national security whenever some sections of the police get an opportunity to slap criminal cases against journalists and dissenters seen as critical of the current establishment. The violence that marred the protests that day provided them with the opportune backdrop necessary to file a sedition case. An exasperating part of this narrative is that all those who had put out similar information through their social media handles have been deemed to be acting in concert, and even participating in the same conspiracy. Hence, the inclusion of Section 120B, the conspiracy provision in the penal code. There is little doubt that the registration of cases in two States different from the place where the farmer-protester’s death occurred indicates an attempt to build a narrative that media misreporting led to some of the violence that day. It also shows a tendency not to miss an opportunity to harass and intimidate journalists.