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Sunday, February 21, 2016

The sedition debate and the different versions of the Indian nation

By Swapan Dasgupta

Every controversy generates a great deal of heat and dust. More often than not they Also tend to be ephemeral, forgotten by the time the next ‘news break’ preoccupies the chattering classes. Having played out for an entire week or more, the storm over the demonstrations in Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University is drawing to a closure—with a lot of loose ends that will still have to be tied, but probably out of sustained media attention. However, from a larger perspective, there are themes that stand out and which could do with some serious examination. 

Let me look at one: the contentious sedition law in the India Penal Code, now debunked by many as a “colonial” law that should be scrapped. That alien rulers who ruled through a blend of collaboration and coercion need punitive action against certain forms of disloyalty to the Crown is not in doubt. The corresponding argument is that since sovereignty now rests in the people of India, terms such as sedition and disloyalty no longer need to be codified in the statute books. Whereas helping an enemy country through active treason can be dealt with through the provisions of the Official Secrets Act, no actionable law, it has been suggested, is needed to deal with those who have learnt to drink from the cup of azadi. In other words, or so it is being claimed, there would have been no controversy over the student demonstration in JNU had the Indian state not internalised the doctrine of sedition. Had the boisterous show of solidarity with the cause that propelled Afzal Guru, executed for his involvement in the attack on the Indian Parliament, become a threat to public peace, the problem, it is argued, could have been dealt by invoking laws that are less draconian than the one relating to sedition. 

Since the sedition laws have been in the statute books without break since August 15, 1947, it is disingenuous to blame the Narendra Modi government for invoking an existing law. While there may be legitimate differences of opinion on whether Kanhaiya Kumar, the student at the centre of the controversy, had done anything that was seditious, invoking the law does not per se establish the government’s mala fide intentions. The suggestion that the young, and somewhat excitable and even gullible, lad with an overdose of radical pretensions should be treated with indulgence is an emotional argument—and one that I have a great of personal sympathy with. But expediency and selective indignation do not make for upright statecraft. Either India should get Parliament to scrap the sedition law or it should apply them fairly and even indiscriminately. That also implies that the applicability of the sedition law in any particular case should be left to the courts rather than to either Noam Chomsky and Romila Thapar or TV anchors, whether xenophobic or a friend of Dawood Ibrahim. 

Assuming the political class takes a second look at the sedition laws, the next question that arises is whether loyalty to the nation and its integrity should be made obligatory for a law-abiding citizen? Should disrespecting the flag (intentionally) be retained as an offence? Or should India move into the orbit of permissive nationhood where the sole test of belonging is a travel document or a relevant visa? Everything else being a matter of individual tastes or political preferences. 

At one level the debate is centred on the symbolic—standing up for the national anthem, honouring the flag, adhering to the Constitution, etc. The more substantive issue is whether commitment to the nation should also include a corresponding intolerance of those groups or individuals that seek the destruction of the Indian Union, perhaps through violence. Here the differences are far more basic. 

The uber liberals in media and academia think of India as a geographical entity bound together by a common Constitution. By this logic, the basis of nationhood is negotiable and even dependant on prevailing fashion—recall the inclusion of ‘socialist’ and ‘secular’ in the Preamble (aka ‘basic structure’) in 1976, under questionable circumstances. More to the point, in this perception Indian nationhood is not really compromised if either the national flag is turned into clothing (as routinely happens in the US and now the UK) or Kashmir or chunks of the North-east are detached from the country’s national boundaries. By this logic, if a JNU student has chanted slogans promoting the physical breakup of India into tiny pieces, it is no big deal. 

There is another point of view which may seem crass to intellectuals but which resonates among a wider constituency. This sees India not merely as a geographical mass that extends from Kashmir to Kannyakumari, but also as a venerable deity. Bharat Mata is merely one manifestation of this transformation of nationalism into sacred geography. Different communities have different ways of expressing the divinity of the motherland/homeland. Consequently, the casual indifference with which a section of the students in JNU and Jadavpur University perceived territoriality was interpreted by others as sacrilege. This does not condone the boisterous aggression of some lawyers in Patiala Court. But understanding the sacredness of nationalism may go some way in understanding why the ideas of nationalism conveyed to the country by those who fought the election on the “idea of India” aren’t unchallenged. 

It would be useful to have a civilised debate, extending over a period of time and not limited to TV studios, on the relevance or otherwise of the sedition laws. India may even emerge from the bouts of slogan shouting, not to mention a vicious civil war in the media, a little more enlightened. 

Sunday Pioneer, February 21, 2016

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

Politicians and so called intellectuals always talk things in such a way that the common man stay confused .I seriously don't understand whether you are confused or you don't want to attract ire of some group. The issue is very simple. Brought those people in to book who has actually done something wrong according to the law and don't make farce of whole thing in the name of nationalism by arresting some one of the charge which he has not committed. All is being done in the name of nationalism to fool people and stay relevant in politics. Don't get into certain argument with national flag and territory of Bharatmata. Make law which should be followed by the people who want to be a citizen of this country or stay in this country. Don't let it be dictated by antisocial goons.

SatyaK said...

There are three issues pertaining to the JNU incident:

1. the issue and manifestation of sedition. Specifically, what constitutes sedition and to what degree. And whether a series of actions, including speeches (it is also an action after all) whose immediate and ultimate goal is to encourage dissent and thereby ultimately lead to the dismemberment of India can be legally termed as a heinous crime against the nation. The definition has to distinguish between irresponsible comments made by student leaders, and more nuanced but deliberate comments by terrorist ideologues. Both have to be punished but to vastly different degrees.

2. the thoroughly unprofessional response of the police and the lawyers. If the law enforcement was impartial, unemotional and thoroughly professional the incidents of lawyers beating up the student and the journalists would not have happened. In fact, those lawyers would have been arrested and tried in court for assault. By tacitly approving of the lawyer's violent conduct the police have disgraced themselves and the union Home Minister has not acquitted himself well by pointing to the instigation of the JNU incident by LeT insteading of unequivocally condemning the lawyers' conduct and the police's inaction. This is a shame on the government whose duty it is to protect all, including those arrested. This behaviour makes India look like a clone of Pakistan, no better. In fact, Modi must be embarrassed that these incidents are occurring under his watch.

3. Most predictable has been the response of the "left-leaning academics" and the "intelligentsia". Isn't it ironical that for these people to thrive and be able to make a respectable living they need the nation state to prosper -- whether it is India or the US or the UK. But by their very negation of nationalism and all those forces that unite a nation and keep it united they are making their own existence insecure. A Noam Chomsky may habitually berate America/its government and now the Indian government but these people can only thrive in strong nations. The likes of Romila Thapar, etc may be ignored for these only relay what the western intellectuals say. Perhaps they are sure that never will nations disintegrate in their lifetimes and therefore they can boldly call for the breaking up of nations. One is reminded of Engels who after reading the Marx's "Das Kapital" asked him "do you really want to live in such a world (created by Communism)?" Marx' response (much like our intellectuals' would be) was "I will be long dead when and if it comes into existence"
There in lies a clue to the vociferousness of the intellectuals!

Srini said...

I think the leftist journalists with the "liberal" mask are on thin ice. Sedition is a law that exists in our books whether you like it or not. If someone breaks the law, then they will be brought to court and will be punished, if they had in fact broken the law. (By the way law should be applied to lawyers as well) If you don't like the law, then campaign for changing it, vote for the law makers who will change it and get it changed. There is no other way in a democracy.

The irony is that they ("liberal" journalists) had their favorite lawmakers for 60 years, but they were intensely focusing on back scratching, collusion, plump postings and outright corruption, that they forgot about governance and national unity. Now when a nationalistic government that is bent on eliminating corruption hits a bit too close for their comfort, they are all banding together and screaming their heads off.

The best thing that has happened to India is the Internet and particularly Social media. Peoples awareness has increased, and their access to respond has improved. In the past there is no way for a public to respond even if they understand that the anchor is a sellout. SM is exposing all these pimps and brokers for what they are, and forcing them to think twice before saying something. In the medium to long term, SM will be the savior of India and Indian Unity. The public has finally found a voice.

teedotem said...

Well, that's all wonderful, but as far as I can see, marking the ends and developing the contours of the 'liberal' and the 'secular' will be productive for an understanding of what is going on here. Rather than rendering these terms derogatory, as is the current fashion of the right (there is a conception of the 'fashionable' that the right follows too, and this is it) can we agree to perhaps skirt around the hate mongering, premised as it is on exteriorising absolutely the self from the object of hate? As an Oxford trained Historian, I am certain you are aware of the multiple directions the word critique points to. On one hand, there is the absolute oppositionality to the object of critique, as if to throw stones at it, on the other, there is a notion of critique that points to questioning and the desire to know. As Talal Asad famously asks, is critique secular? Perhaps it is worthwhile to consider these ideas, it shall perhaps render your article less of a gloss.