Ex-IAS officer Kannan Gopinathan spoke about freedom of expression, the importance of responding to defenders of bad laws, keeping the conversation going, and not leaving WhatsApp groups in frustration, at a talk in Bengaluru on Friday. Kannan made headlines last year for resigning from his government post over the suspension of the internet in Kashmir, saying that it was important to protest when there is a violation of fundamental rights.
In the three-hour long interaction with a rapt audience, which felt like a classroom discussion, Kannan posed questions to the audience and took reactions. Based on these responses, he spoke about the state of freedom of expression and democracy in our country. The host, while introducing Kannan, said that there would not be any slogan shouting in the audience. However, when Kannan took to the stage, he said, “This is a talk on freedom of expression. We should shout slogans. Awaaz do! (Lend me your voice!)” to which the audience responded, “Hum ek hai!” (We are united.)
“In a democracy, the final authority is the people. When does a democracy fail? When its citizens become lazy. We should continuously keep the conversation going, as it is our duty to question the government and its supporters. If we leave WhatsApp groups in frustration at the few people who make outrageous statements, then we leave the rest of the silent spectators to hear only the noise created by just one side of the argument," he said.
He encouraged people to keep raising their voices, as, “In a democracy, it is our duty to ask questions. I resigned from my post because in Kashmir, the government curbed the people’s right to protest. The government has all the power to pass laws which they make, however the people were not given the opportunity to respond to it.”
He went on to add, “The arguments we have on social media are never to convince the person who is already convinced. It is for those in the audience who want to hear both sides of the discussion before they make up their minds. The supporters of the government may ask a lot of questions, which we may not have ready answers to, and we get frustrated and leave. But all questions don’t need answers. Some questions can only be responded to with another question.”
At one point in the discussion, Kannan took on the guise of the Indian Home Minister to encourage people to respond. “Why are you against the CAA (Citizenship Amendment Act)? It is to support the persecuted religious minorities in Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan.” To this, the audience shouted against it, saying that discriminating against some religions is unconstitutional, thus the CAA is anti-constitutional. Kannan then responded, like an apologist: “We already have positive discrimination in the Constitution in the form of reservation, so what?” Some people shouted against immigration policies itself, that the government should look after its citizens first. Others said it leaves out people from certain countries from the Bill. Kannan then clarified that the stated reason for those countries included in CAA are arbitrary. “There is no real logic given for the countries chosen, which is why we must oppose it,” he said.
He also discussed the government’s definition of persecuted religious minorities in the CAA. “The government has not said on what basis people are referred to as persecuted minorities. They also haven’t declared who an illegal immigrant is. These are the basis of the law, but they are unclear. The government says, what are you protesting about? These are still not clearly defined!” However Kannan says that the reason people are apprehensive is because the intentions of the government are not stated.
Another problem Kannan highlighted regarding the CAA was that it doesn’t clearly say how Indian Muslims will be spared during the process. “The politicians say that Indian Muslims have nothing to worry about. But the Act does not clarify how the government proposes to do that. That’s why the people come out in large numbers to protest.
Kannan also spoke at length regarding the National Population Register (NPR). “The NPR in its rules states very clearly that it is the preliminary to the NRC (National Register of Citizens). In the NPR rules, it adds it is a state-led operation. NPR is effectively NRC, as that is where the government will get all its data. Already, West Bengal has decided not to carry out the NPR. If eleven or more states object to the NPR, then NRC cannot be undertaken due to the lack of data," he pointed out.
Kannan said that the NPR itself is not problematic, however, “The six additional questions that this government has added to the NPR questionnaire betray the intentions of the government to discriminate.” One of the most contentious questions in the NPR is the addition of the question regarding place of birth of parents.
Finally, Kannan addressed the question of what the alternative is to the present government, as many see the Congress as incompetent.
“Right now, when there is a majority of more than 350 seats in Parliament, there is no strong opposition. The burden of opposition is on the people. We have to stand up and raise our voice when we believe that the government is not doing its job properly. When the time comes for elections, the alternatives will automatically show up. We won't allow this government to come back to power,” he concluded.