Free speech is under threat in Andhra Pradesh

Gali Nagaraja

Hyderabad: COVID-19 pandemic has brought free speech under threat in Andhra Pradesh.

In the name of enforcing physical distancing under the stringent lockdown regime to check the spread of virus, the people’s right to know and freedom of expression of political parties by way of holding rallies have become casualty.

The lockdown rules have confined the principal opposition leader N. Chandrababu Naidu of the Telugu Desam Party to his Hyderabad’s residence for more than 60 days, denying him the role he is expected to play during the current critical period in his home state. His attempts to fly to Visakhapatnam and console the victims of the styrene gas leak accident went in vain since the government insisted that Naidu’s inter-state movement would amount to an offence under violation of the lockdown rules.

The opposition parties are raising hue and cry over the section 144 of Criminal Procedure Code in force, preventing them to reach out to the migrant workers with relief material. The competent authorities issued orders under Section 144 of the CrPC, prohibiting more than five people from assembling in public places.

Facing backlash

The case of a government doctor K. Sudhakar, the victim of police brutality in Visakhapatnam, serves as a grim pointer for the sorry state of affairs. The videos of a bare-chested doctor with his hands tied behind, being kicked by a police constable on the road in full public view on May 17 went viral. The horrific incident drew the attention of the Andhra Pradesh High Court which directed the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) to book the police responsible for the incident.

Earlier, Dr Sudhakar, working in the Narsipatnam Area Hospital as an anaesthetist, raised his voice on how the frontline healthcare workers were likely to face the risk of contracting the coronavirus due to the government’s failure to supply personal protection equipment (PPEs) and N-95 masks. He was subsequently placed under suspension.

The subsequent police action against him obviously smacks of the fact that Sudhakar became victim of vendetta unleashed by the government.

Nagari Municipal Commissioner Venkatarami Reddy in Chittoor district faced a similar fate for a video which he posted on a social media platform, lamenting lack of funds and PPEs to fight the pandemic. The government cited violation of conduct rules by the two government servants as a reason for their suspension.

In an unrelated incident in West Godavari’s Tadepalligudem a Jana Sena worker attempted suicide at a local police station, accusing the local Circle Inspector of harassing him for blowing whistle over illegal sand mining allegedly with a tacit support from the ruling YSR Congress. The CI allegedly summoned the Jana Sena worker to the police station to produce evidences in support of his allegations or face police action.

Stifling public voices

In another case, a 66-year old woman Poodota Ranganayaki from Guntur was arrested by the Crime Investigation Department (CID) on charges of inciting hatred against the government for sharing a Facebook post, questioning the government’s failure to close the LG Polymers even after leaking of styrene gas vapours and raised suspicions over shifting of styrene gas containers from the plant premises.

Incidentally, a good number of YSRC leaders were framed by the police during the previous TDP regime for taking to social media for lampooning the then Chief Minister N. Chandrababu Naidu and his son Lokesh. The Jagan’s party after coming to power seems taking a leaf out of the TDP’s book to muzzle the dissent raised through the social media platforms in a similar fashion.

The oppressive postures being adopted by Y.S. Jaganmohan Reddy government apparently takes a heavy toll on transparency in handling the pandemic. The government is accused by the opposition parties of underplaying the incidence of virus infections by way of under-reporting of cases. The state crossed 2,500 corona cases with 55 deaths as on May 22.

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