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