Civil society has roundly condemned the BJP attack on senior journalist Nikhil Wagle, lawyer Aseem Sarode and activist Vishwambhar Choudhary in Pune yesterday.
The three were proceeding towards the venue of a public meeting called by the Nirbhay Bano group organised by Rashtra Seva Dal in the Singhad Road in Pune city when their vehicle was attacked by a mob at Khandoji Baba Chowk in Pune. The car’s windscreen was smashed and ink and black paint was thrown on it. In videos of the attack, voices can be heard shouting and urging others to drag Wagle out of the vehicle and beat him.
A few brave women and men tried to ward off the assailants and finally, Wagle, Sarode and Chaudhary reached the venue of the public meeting. Bhakti Kumbhar from the Rashtrawadi Congress (Sharad Pawar) party actually ran alongside the vehicle and tried to stop attackers from smashing it. Hundreds of people attended the meeting and strongly condemned the attack. According to reports, the meeting itself was denied police permission but that did not stop people from gathering at the venue. Workers of the BJP and different opposition parties came face to face at the venue.
Free Speech Collective believes that such violence and intimidation are a naked display of intolerance to dissent. Such attacks against differing and oppositional viewpoints, however inimical, strike at the fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression.
The Pune police inability to prevent the attack is shocking. There were enough warnings of the attempt by the BJP to disrupt the public meeting called by the Nirbhay Bano group, including an open threat of violence by BJP leader Dheeraj Ghate.
It is reported that the three were travelling to the venue of the public meeting under police protection. While it is anybody’s guess what would have happened if they did not have any police protection, the fact that the police presence was of no deterrent at all to the mob is highly disturbing.
Pune Police displayed alacrity in registering an FIR against Wagle for his tweet critiquing the award of the country’s highest honour, the Bharat Ratna, to BJP leader L K Advani and speedily acted on a complaint lodged by a local BJP leader. Wagle is charged u/s 153A (promoting enmity between different groups), 500 (defamation) and 505 (statements conducive to public mischief) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) at Vishrambaug police station in Pune.
Another complaint was lodged against the rioters in Parvati police station under sections 147 (rioting), 336 (causing grievous hurt by an act endangering life or personal safety) and other relevant provisions of the Indian Penal Code. No arrests have been made as yet.
Condemnation of the attack came from all quarters. Members of the Pune City Congress Committee, Rashtrawadi (Sharad Pawar group) and Shiv Sena (Uddhav Thackeray group) had participated in the public meeting. They spoke out about the ‘goonda raj’ prevalent in Maharashtra, drawing attention to the dastardly shooting of a Shiv Sena (UBT) leader Abhishek Ghosalkar on Thursday, by another political leader Mauris Noronha, who later died by suicide.
In a statement, the Editors Guild of India (EGI) condemned the attack on Wagle and said that while his views are his views, to attack him for voicing his opinion is unjust, illegal, and deplorable. The Guild reiterated its deep concerns on the misuse of criminal laws against journalists in an effort to intimidate and harass them and added :“We urge law enforcement agencies to exercise restraint before registering complaints against journalist as an FIR, lest the process of investigation becomes a punishment itself.”
In another statement, the Network of Women in Media India (NWMI) said that the assault “is further evidence of the BJP’s recurring pattern of intolerance toward journalists who dare to question it. Resorting to brute force to silence dissent only underscores the party’s inability and unwillingness to engage in civilised debate.”