A democracy on life support
Panahi’s arrest was carried out without due process, just because he was protesting outside the jail, an act many observers termed as akin to kidnapping.
In a development that shocked the global artistic community, the acclaimed Iranian director Jafar Panahi was ordered to serve six years in jail by the country’s judiciary, after he was detained in Tehran recently. Panahi’s arrest marks the third such incident in the country in the span of a week. His crime seems to have been his visiting a prison to inquire about the arrests of two fellow directors, who had been incarcerated for supporting protests. The two filmmakers taken into custody include Mohammad Rasoulof and Mostafa Aleahmad, who were arrested over social media posts regarding the collapse of a ten-storey building in the city of Abadan in May, which claimed 40 lives. The two directors were accused of “inciting unrest and disrupting the security of society”, as per a state news agency.
Panahi’s arrest was carried out without due process, just because he was protesting outside the jail, an act many observers termed as akin to kidnapping. Panahi has often rubbed the Islamic Revolutionary Court the wrong way, with his whip sharp critique of the inefficiencies of governance and socio-economic problems in Iran. In 2010, he was sentenced to six years in prison, and slapped with a 20-year-ban on making films, writing screenplays or even leaving the nation. While awaiting the result of his appeal, Panahi directed a documentary called This is Not a Film, about his life under house arrest. The gutsy filmmaker smuggled the documentary out of Iran on a pen drive, concealed inside a birthday cake, and subsequently screened at Cannes in 2011.
The crackdown on freedom of expression resonates in India too as the liberty assured to those involved in creative or critiquing endeavours comes with fine print. Last week, filmmaker Avinash Das was arrested in Mumbai, on account of sharing a photo of Union Home Minister Amit Shah along with suspended IAS officer Pooja Singhal. As per the FIR, the filmmaker had claimed in a caption that the photo was taken a few days before the official’s arrest, although the image had been clicked in 2017. The director has also been booked for insulting the national flag by posting an image of a woman dressed in the tricolour.
In the same week, two journalists, Mohd Shakib Ragrez and Vishal Stonewall, associated with the Chalchitra Abhiyaan film and media collective were attacked by an unknown assailant in Baghpat district, UP. The duo was reporting on the impact of revised GST rates of food items on the common man. These developments transpired as the Supreme Court offered an interim bail to Mohammad Zubair, co-founder of a fact checking portal, in six cases filed against him in UP, for allegedly hurting religious sentiments through his tweets. Zubair was given a hero’s welcome on Twitter with thousands pledging their support.
While it might be short-sighted to draw comparisons of the scenes unfolding in Iran to the events transpiring in India, there is a common thread running through them. We are witnessing an unprecedented crackdown on the bare bones of our democracy. It’s conveniently bunching together intellectuals, dissenters, comedians, contrarians, creative individuals, media personnel and reminding them who really is the boss around here. It’s a template that has preceded the formation of dictatorships the world over. The silver lining is that the more forcibly such voices are repressed, the greater the echoes of their beliefs. We might be the second largest democracy in the world, but the values that sustain us seem to be on life support.