Gag order against Priya Pillai: Does India want to be like China, Saudi Arabia?

Narendra Modi government's fascination for the Chinese growth story is quite open. Now it seems to have begun to emulate the Communist autocracy in another area that the Chinese are known for - human rights violations to protect the image and growth-interests of the country.

Before we move on, let's admit that India hasn't yet developed it into a regular habit, but has given enough indications that when it comes to "protecting" the country’s image overseas, particularly when it concerns foreign investments, it may like to follow China. So far, there is only one example, but that is more than sufficient because the setting is so strikingly similar.

Greenpeace activist Priya Pillai. Courtesy: ANI/Twitter

Greenpeace activist Priya Pillai. Courtesy: ANI/Twitter

The case in point is Greenpeace activist Priya Pillai's offloading from a plane bound for London to prevent her from participating in a meeting with British MPs, the sheer arbitrariness of doing it, and its continued justification. As is well know now, Pillai was told by some officers at the Delhi airport last month, when she was about to board the plane with all valid documents, that she couldn't travel because there was a "look-out notice" against her. However, what was more ludicrous was the government’s stand when the matter was taken to court early this week. It said that Pillai could travel again if she could submit an undertaking that she wouldn't make submissions in foreign countries.

Outrightly rejecting the suggestion, Pillai told the court through her lawyer: "If I accept that the government has a right to dictate what I can and can’t say, then India and all Indians would lose something priceless – our absolute right to free speech. I cannot and will not accept that." Exposing the government’s vested interests in gagging her, she further said: "The government’s so-called case against me is dangerous and dishonest. It says that by informing British MPs about a British-registered company’s activities in Singrauli I am somehow acting against India’s national interest. But our laws, Indian laws, are being flouted in Mahan, to the detriment of thousands of Indians, all to benefit a coal mining project. How is raising awareness of this anti-national? I am a proud Indian, and I will not be silenced."

In the last several years, one country that has repeatedly gagged voices of dissent from appearing offshore the most has been China. It has repeatedly prevented its activists from almost all the sectors - from AIDS to women’s rights - from travelling abroad. Often, they confiscated passports and even physically bridled their targets. Perhaps on instructions from mainland China, Hong Kong also employed travel restrictions on people participating in the recent pro-democracy movement. Last month, a pro-democracy activist was blocked while he was coming home after vacationing in Taiwan. Reportedly, he heard the word "blacklist" from the airport. In Pillai's case, the terminology was "look out notice" and she too heard it only at the airport.

This "travel ban" and keeping people on travel "black-lists" is also a gag-tool of authoritarian governments of the Middle East. Saudis do it, Bahrain does it, Egypt does it, Iran does it and Israel does it. In the past, many authoritarian governments such as Myanmar and Cambodia had regularly prevented people from travelling abroad to avoid public knowledge of their dirty secrets. Organisations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International had time and again raised the issue as a rights violation.

So, democratic India is getting into a realm that undemocratic, repressive and authoritarian governments have been notorious for. And the star of these violations is the king of economic growth, China. While taking a leaf out of the Chinese book of growth by promoting manufacturing (Make in India), is it also copying its fantastic human rights standards that seemed to have aided growth? From what the government told the court, it’s amply clear that its justification to curtail Pillai’s movements was inspired by the Chinese model. It said that Pillai was traveling abroad with "specific anti-India agenda and that her campaign against the government would have impacted the country’s image abroad, at a time when India is looking forward to foreign direct investments".

Despite the Chinese, the Bahrainis and Saudis rounding up their dissenters and preventing them from telling the world what has been going in their countries, the world knows their macabre stories. Their "black lists" and "travel bans" in fact strengthen the world’s conviction that these governments violate the rights of their citizens. By preventing Pillai from speaking on foreign soil, the government of India is also making the same mistake.

Unfortunately, it’s not a benign mistake by the intelligence officials or the home ministry, but the reflection of a tendency of authoritarianism. There are already reports that the government is getting ready to crack down on several civil society organisations and reportedly, there is even a "hit-list". It’s certainly part of a bigger plan.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi swears by good governance. Freedom of speech, as an inalienable human right, and a robust civil society are also central to good governance.


Updated Date: Feb 20, 2015 18:16 PM

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