Nationalism and 'sedition' in service of fascism

The objectionable and degrading slogans raised inside JNU by a group of unknown persons are condemnable and unacceptable and by all means due process should take its own course for action against those guilty. However, to crack down on the students of a prestigious university and arrest its student union president, Kanhaiya Kumar goes against both ethics and legal procedures. To slap sedition charges is not just bizarre but sheer case of witch hunting and a complete intolerance to those who do not conform to RSS Hindutva ideology. Kanhaiya, like Rohith Vemula who was victimized and harassed to the point of being pushed to end his life, symbolizes the opposition to this ideology. Kanhaiya did not raise those slogans. Neither did he organize the Afzal Guru event; he and other members of the students union attended it. The next day, the students union also issued a statement condemning the slogans and dissociating from them. He was, however, a strong votary against the ideology of the RSS and its inspired policies of the government.

The occasion demands that a dangerous discourse propped up by mixing facts be shed for the sake of democracy and to prevent victimization of people who have neither broken democratic norms nor gone against the law. The need is to draw a distinction between the justifiable and the unjustified. The slogans calling for ‘Bharat ki barbadi’ would certainly classify as anti-national but not critiquing the judgement on Afzal Guru. The Indian constitution gives its citizens the right to question the State and also the judicial pronouncements. Before and after Afzal Guru was executed, many across the country have questioned, not quite his conviction, but the sentence served to him. His case has been deemed a travesty of justice because of an unfair trial, characterized by lack of evidence other than circumstantial evidence and his selectively admitted confession. The judgement continues to be criticized on basis of merits of the case and on the logic that his punishment was grossly disproportionate to his participation in the crime. There is nothing illegal, undemocratic or anti-national in defending Afzal Guru or in questioning the legal process that nailed him on basis of rational argument. 

That for Kashmiris, Afzal Guru and Maqbool Butt are heroes, too cannot be held against them because of a history of dispute and a reality of political aspirations. The arrested JNUSU president, however, may not have shared this similar admiration for Guru or Butt. Besides, there cannot be two yardsticks – legally and politically – to deal with people whose heroes are different from the mainstream’s. The RSS and its affiliated organizations have always held Nathuram Godse, the assassin of Mahatma Gandhi, in reverence. Till the present Narendra Modi government came to power, this adulation was quite clandestine now it has become open and declared with demands for erecting temples to extol Godse. On nationally declared days like Gandhi Jayanti, the saffron outfits declare a black day, and on January 30 – anniversary of Gandhi’s assassination, they distribute sweets and celebrate the day as Shaurya Divas. The present government at best distances itself from such elements but makes no attempt to crackdown on them. In fact, Prime minister Narendra Modi has been caught on camera with hands folded before Godse’s image as a homage to the man who killed the father of the nation. However, India is a great democracy and the Indian constitution is lofty enough to accomodate people with such different ideologies that can be opposed but do not invite legal action unless such an ideology causes provocation enough to incite violence. From time to time, the RSS’ Hindutva ideology has evinced that dangerous potential and yet the core essence of Indian constitution – the right to freedom of expression – has allowed the RSS ideologues to function despite their dangerous nuisance value. Yet, if the RSS inspired government of the day wishes to change that spirit of the Indian constitution by clamping down on those defending or eulogizing Afzal Guru, it must first act against the Godse worshippers. 

As for the slogan shouting brigade on the JNU campus, Kanahiya had dissociated himself from them much before the police acted without allowing the autonomous university mechanism to proceed with respect to the issue. But even if he were to be in any way linked to them and those condemnable slogans, slapping sedition charges against him are unjustified. In connection with the Section 124A, pertaining to sedition, under which Kanahiya has been charged, a constitution bench of the Supreme Court in the 60s ruled that an act of sedition may be punishable only if the speech is an incitement to violence, or public disorder. Mere speeches and words of disaffection against the state cannot be criminalized. 

The sedition law is a colonial legacy that continues to be wrongly used against dissenters. Invoked by the British to clamp down on opponents of British rule and British atrocities, the law was liberally used against people like Mahatma Gandhi and Bal Gangadhar Tilak. After independence, the Indian leaders have debated against its misuse and former prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru is on record to have advocated that such a regressive law be dispensed with. Unfortunately, such words have not been heeded and the law, even before Modi government came to power, was being used as a weapon of witch-hunt – against dissenters and those who challenged the policies of the government of the day. It was used against Arundhati Roy, Binayak Sen and among many others a cartoonist who lampooned the Manmohan Singh government for its inability to check corruption. The cartoon was distasteful to the core. So are the slogans on JNU campus in question. An archaic law cannot be activated for something that at best requires disciplinary action. It cannot be misused to keep dissenters out of circulation and embroiled in legal processes that take a long time to settle. 

Kanahiya is the unsuspecting victim of fascist politics that the present government wants to pursue. In pursuance of such politics there is a bid to create vacuum in political and intellectual spaces and capture them through stooges and votaries of the RSS. Like the Hyderabad University where the government acted brazenly, in violation of all norms, to crackdown on dissenters at the behest of the student wing of BJP, ABVP, the JNU story is yet another spoke in the wheel. There is a systemic pattern at work. It functions by perpetuating falsehoods and confusions, popularized by vocal outbursts of professed ‘nationalism’ and propagated through loyal unquestioning media, obliterating difference between the legally constitutional acts and distasteful ones, branding them all with one sweeping definition as ‘anti-national’ and ‘seditious’ in nature. This is a sinister discourse and its final casualty is the democracy and democratic spirit of equality, liberty and dissent.