Unfair gag order

| Updated on February 19, 2021

ICAI’s ‘advisory’ to members, students smacks of overreach

The Institute of Chartered Accountants of India, a statutory body, appears to have joined the rising chorus of overreaction towards any form of dissent. On February 11, the ICAI issued an extraordinarily stern advisory to its members and students, urging them not to post on social media platforms any content that may bring “disrepute” to the institute and the profession. The advisory laments that “members and students have taken to social media to express their grievances related to the profession/academics without first taking up issues with the institute”. As is typically the case with such warnings, acts of “disrepute” and “misconduct” can be conveniently interpreted to include a range of behaviours, from the intemperate to the harmless. The context here is the tussle between students and the ICAI over the holding of exams in the midst of the pandemic. They were finally held in a staggered fashion between November 2020 and this January. The advisory has threatened to cancel the registration of students over their social media posts, interpreting these as “misconduct” under Part IV First Schedule to the Chartered Accountants Act, 1949. While there is a case for observing reasonable, or exceptional, restrictions to freedom of expression, it is a bit hard to believe that the students’ ire was calculated to disturb “social and communal harmony, threatening peace and tranquillity”.

It does not augur well for a professional body such as the ICAI to be over-sensitive to criticism — even if it is frivolous in nature. The Institute’s cause will be better served, if it were to direct its energies towards the professional misdemeanours of CAs and to strategise on how to make the training more contemporary. The advisory is particularly disconcerting where it says that members should not express “grievances related to the profession” without consulting the Institute. Criticism and dissent are integral to democracy. If disrepute is extended to mean any criticism by a CA of, say, a tax-related provision in the Budget, it would surely be absurd. By that logic, the Medical Council of India should instruct doctors not to be critical of the management of the pandemic, fearing ‘disrepute’ to the profession and the nation. The ICAI should clarify its position on this matter. Informed criticism is a sine qua non for better institutions and governance. However, there can be no case for the social media being used to propagate hate speech — be it CAs or others.

Meanwhile, the Centre has drawn some flak for the directive that international academic webinars would require its approval. At this rate, India may lose out in the global marketplace of ideas. Professionals and academics need their space. Knee-jerk regulation cannot serve anyone’s interest.

Published on February 19, 2021

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