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Two months have passed since January 11 when Priya Pillai was unceremoniously off-loaded from a London-bound plane. The stated pretext was that she was going to testify in front of a ‘foreign committee’ and thus jeopardize strategic national interests on the global stage. As the high court’s judgement indicated on Thursday -this stated argument of the government does not have a leg to stand on. Justice Rajiv Shakdher, while putting aside the government’s lookout notice, also directed the government to expunge the ‘off-load’ remarks from Pillai’s passport.  When Pillai had been evicted from the plane, social activists pointed out that the move smacked of executive overreach.

The government’s decision to bar Pillai from travelling to London raised several disturbing questions, each question inextricably linked to the space accorded to dissent in a democracy. The Government of India (GoI) affidavit alleges that allowing Pillai to depose before a foreign committee would be detrimental to national interests. If this is true, should every Indian who has spoken out against the government in foreign forums be put on a no-fly list? Should Amartya Sen be barred from flying because he has expressed his unhappiness with the way the Human Resource Development Ministry is meddling with academic appointments? The answer is a firm no.

Dissent is absolutely critical in a democracy as complex and diverse as ours. Then there is the question of whether private corporate interests are the same as those of the government’s. Does Essar’s mining interest in Mahan converge with those of the government? Once again the answer is a clear no. Is it the government’s place to gently facilitate the interests of a British mining company (Essar) in the guise of protecting national interests? Last but not the least, what are the views of this present government on the sanctity of fundamental rights? It is clear post the high court judgement that the government’s action was unconstitutional.

As Pillai’s lawyer Indira Jaising stated in court, the government’s action violated Pillai’s fundamental rights of freedom of speech and expression, freedom of association and personal liberty. It also set a dangerous precedent for pre-censorship.  The events of January 11 reflect poorly on the government’s affinity for the fundamental rights of India’s citizens. The government could have clearly avoided making a mountain out of this proverbial molehill. Hopefully post this judgement, the mandarins who sit in South Block would think twice before treading on the fundamental rights of those who speak out against its agenda.
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