NEW DELHI — Farooque was a Kashmiri. He hated India. His cousin was killed by security forces at a demonstration in Srinagar. This was 1990. We were classmates, and I always took him head on for his anti-India rhetoric. Back then, no one minded his bombast, nor our arguments — and life went on. Then came March 1992 and the cricket World Cup. The determined Imran Khan and Pakistan came from behind and won the title. I skipped college the day Pakistan won because I did not have the courage to face Farooque, who was of course ecstatic beyond words and was looking to rub my face in it. I was madly in love with cricket and my national team, which had let me down. But I also knew that defeat was part of the game, and part of life.
But 1992 also came with hate. The 400-year-old Babri Masjid was pulled down within four hours by kar sevaks. That become a defining moment in India's secular history and Farooque taunted me on being the citizen of a country which could not protect the mosque from a group of rabid communalists. I was hurt, but also convinced that it was the handiwork of a lunatic fringe that would never have a place within the pluralistic and secular India I was so proud of.
I was madly in love with cricket and my national team, which had let me down.
Again, life went on and we graduated from college. India too graduated from an innocent past and the mid-1990s saw the swift embracing of neoliberal policies. People changed and jumped classes overnight. Farooque left the country and we lost contact.
And then 2002 happened. Yes, it happened not as a year but as a moment of perfidy for the thousands of Muslims who lived in different parts of Gujarat, imagining it to be their home. I emailed a Muslim and a Hindu friend from Ahmedabad asking about their well-being. Both were copied on the same mail. The Muslim guy replied in short — "Alive" — while my Hindu friend wrote, "Ashamed to be alive."
I was thankful that I had lost touch with Farooque. The brevity of the message from my Hindu friend gave me hope. They will never be able to hijack this country, I thought, but a tiny doubt had crept up in me, which was bound to grow further when Mohammad Akhlaq was lynched in 2015, followed by similar acts against Junaid Khan, Majloom Ansari, Pehlu Khan and others.
The Champions Trophy this year saw India defeating Pakistan in its very first match, but we lost the finals to a resurgent Pakistani side. To my horror, I didn't feel as bad as I had when we had failed to reach the finals of the 1992 World Cup, which was won by Pakistan. I couldn't explain what deferred me from being sad. Sadness, like happiness, should have a reason and I was scared to face this reason. It was like a disfigured person looking in the mirror for the very first time. Was I turning into an anti-national, like Farooque? Why would I not mind India losing to its arch rival?
Then, that evening my phone rang with urgency. It was Farooque — after 25 years he had traced my number through a common friend. We talked for half an hour, discussing our lives and careers.
"Aur miyan, abhi bhi nationalist hee ho? (So, are you still a nationalist?)" he asked me in his usual provocative tone. I was ashamed — not because he had the audacity to pose the question, but because I quickly changed the topic to something altogether irrelevant. Irrelevance, after all, is the best disguise for survival.
Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.
"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.
Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.
But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.
The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."
Criticism of any 'royal project'
The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.
Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.
In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.
Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release
Freedom of speech at stake
"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."
The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.
The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.
Activist in front of democracy monument in Thailand.
Shift to social media
While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.
The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.
Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".
- Long Shielded, Thailand's Monarchy Facing Hard Questions Amid ... ›
- French Monarchist Lessons For A Broken American Democracy ... ›
- Thailand To Belarus: The Divides Of Democracy Protesters ... ›