During the first wave of the pandemic, FIRs against journalists, criminalisation of the Tablighi Jamaat, the arrest of comedian Munawar Faruqui, had already exposed how the government selectively used the COVID-19 regulations to stifle dissent.
During the second wave, too, when the wrath of the virus has increased manifold, Bharatiya Janata Party governments at the Centre and states such as Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh have continued this selective hounding. In fact, gone a step further. Apart from stifling dissent, the government is now also criminalising factual reporting, SOS calls for oxygen, and expert voices seeking accountability for crippling medical infrastructure.
Just like the first wave, “COVID policing” in the second wave is also being selectively used as a political tool. Provisions of the Indian Penal Code, Epidemic Diseases Act, Disaster Management Act, Information Technology Act, and indiscriminate police raids are being used against those accused of “defaming the government”.
While the law itself doesn’t contemplate any such form of defamation.
FIRs for COVID Warriors, Letter for Ramdev
Recently, Baba Ramdev was part of a live session where he made a statement on doctors providing allopathic treatment for COVID-19. Reading from his mobile in a video that has now gone viral, Ramdev could be heard saying, “Allopathy is such a stupid science that first chloroquine failed; then Remdesivir failed; then antibiotics failed; then steroids failed; then plasma therapy was banned.”
The Yoga guru then went on to claim that no medicine was working against COVID-19-related fever as the drugs were only reducing the temperature, but were not treating the virus causing it.
The Indian Medical Association strongly objected to Ramdev’s words. IMA issued a statement saying that since Ramdev had challenged Remdesivir and Fabiflu – both approved by the DGCI – he “deserves to be prosecuted for disobeying” and causing danger to lives by creating a false impression about allopathy in the minds of people.
Further, the IMA asked the health minister to either “accept the challenge and accusations of this gentleman and dissolve modern medical facilities, or boldly face and prosecute the person for his words of arson on the sovereignty of the country.”
However, the Health Ministry headed by Dr Harsh Vardhan chose not to take any criminal action against Ramdev. Rather, the health minister decided to write the Yoga guru a curated letter, “requesting him” to take back his statement.
The “letter” might have led Ramdev to take back his words, but it did not deter him from making new scandalous statements that directly attacked the work of healthcare workers otherwise hailed as COVID Warriors.
This clearly comes across as a polarising attempt to not only fuel the prevailing misconceptions and misinformation on COVID treatment, but also to wage a war between homoeopathy and allopathy. Further, this proves that the Health Ministry’s letter lacked real teeth, and was merely a tactic to water down the backlash.
While Ramdev is yet to face any penal action for his relentless attack on allopathy, on allopathic doctors, and on COVID-19 treatment, BJP led-governments have not shown the same tolerance and benevolence towards those who “committed the crime” of seeking accountability for a crippling medical infrastructure.
In UP, the National Security Act – a draconian preventive detention law – was invoked against a distressed man who posted an SOS call for oxygen as a last attempt to save his family member from succumbing to COVID-19. This is one of the various FIRs lodged in UP against journalists, local residents, and private hospitals, who factually brought attention to the ground reality and demanded the government’s attention to the crisis.
In what might be termed a “new low,” on 23 May, junior doctors at Jhansi’s Maharani Laxmibai Medical College were taken into custody by local police after they tried to present a memorandum, which listed demands and flaws of the college, to Uttar Pradesh CM Yogi Adityanath, who was visiting the college to take stock of the COVID facilities.
In the neighbouring state of Madhya Pradesh, the BJP-led government lodged an FIR against formed Chief Minister Kamal Nath for allegedly spreading misleading information under the Disaster Management Act and Section 188 (Disobedience to order duly promulgated by public servant) over his remarks on the B.1.617 COVID variant, which he referred to as the “Indian Variant”.
Law as a Tool for Political Exploitation
The government’s trend of invoking the Epidemic Diseases Act, IT Act, and provisions under the IPC for “COVID policing” shows its misplaced priorities. It reveals how these laws, which give excessive powers to executive discretion, become tools for political exploitation.
The central government ordered a police raid at Twitter India’s office as a response to Twitter marking Sambit Patra’s tweet on the alleged Congress toolkit as “manipulative media”. It is the same government that has previously exploited section 69A of the IT Act to clandestinely issue takedown notices to Twitter and Facebook against accounts of those who criticised the government’s COVID-19 management,
Article 19(2) of the Indian Constitution does allow for the curbing of free speech on the ground of safeguarding public health. The provisions under the Epidemic Diseases Act, Disaster Management Act, and hate speech provisions under the IPC and the IT Act are laws that allow the government to curb misinformation that is detrimental to public health.
However, the government’s political motives have not only defeated the purpose of these laws, but have made them tools for exploitation. “Protection of public health” has now become a weapon to threaten and silence those working for and demanding improvement in public health.
Meanwhile, Baba Ramdev, Sambit Patra, Tejasvi Surya, and Kangana Ranaut, whose rumour-mongering and spreading of fear and disinformation, are all in the public domain, are going scot-free.
Despite their adverse impact on the morale and efforts of COVID warriors and healthcare professionals, the likes of Ramdev are being allowed to undermine public health with impunity.
. Read more on Law by The Quint.Some Get FIRs, Ramdev Gets ‘Letter’: Centre’s Selective Hounding Rahul Dravid Never Asked Me to Change Natural Game: Prithvi Shaw . Read more on Law by The Quint.