Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel, said Samuel Johnson. India’s airwaves today are choking with patriotic fervour and patriots are busy denouncing anti-nationals, baying for their blood and putting some in jail, to thunderous applause from fellow patriots.
The reference, of course, is to the series of incidents on the Capital’s Jawaharlal Nehru University ( JNU) campus leading up to the arrest of the students’ union president on charges of sedition. It is time we sought some clarity on what is national and what is anti-national.
Conscience of a Nation!
Is criticising the hanging of Afzal Guru antinational? After all, wasn’t he hanged for the indisputably anti-national activity of conspiring to attack India’s Parliament? But how sure are we that he took part in that conspiracy? Unlike terrorists who take pride in their deeds and seek glory in martyring themselves in a cause they believe in, Guru never said he was part of the conspiracy.
But the Supreme Court said so. However, how flawless is a Supreme Court judgement that says, in so many words, that Guru should hang because the conscience of the nation demands it? Is it anti-national to question the verdict of the highest court of the land? Former chief justice of India JS Verma did not think so, when he deemed the Vodafone tax judgement to be atrocious, on a par with the Court’s verdict on habeas corpus during the Emergency and in the JMM bribery case.
How do we evaluate Kashmiri separatism and its vocal support by Kashmiri students on Indian campuses? Let us begin by appreciating that engaging the proponents of separatism has been part of the ‘nationalist’ practice. “Within the framework of humanity,” said Vajpayee.
By trying to form a government with the Peoples Democratic Party, a party that was sharply critical of the hanging of Afzal Guru, on the part of the current leadership of the Bharatiya Janata Party. This stems from the understanding that democratic engagement and a process of accommodation form the route to tackling anti-India sentiment.
The government of India has tried the ‘crackdown on anti-nationals!’ approach long enough to know that it only feeds further separatism.
That Kashmiri students study at Indian universities is a quiet acknowledgement of India’s role in their lives. When they voice their resentment at Indian injustice in Kashmir, they practise the freedom of expression guaranteed by the Indian Constitution and, whether they admit it or not, and whether they like it or not, they pay tribute to Indian democracy. Conversely, the patriots who seek to curb free speech and slap sedition charges on students for airing their opinions trash Indian democracy.
The right to free speech is not the right to sing lullabies. Specifically, it is about the right to voice opinion that is at odds with mainstream opinion, that could offend many people. The democratic response to speech that offends is speech that refutes the offending speech and makes it void, not muzzling it.
Does this mean that democracy is a freefor-all, where anti-nationals are free to run riot subverting the nation? It does not. Action that attacks the security of the state would violate some law or the other and the state would be entitled to act against offensive action. But speech falling short of active incitement to violence should meet with accommodation of what is valid in the criticism and refutation of what is not valid, not be silenced.
The Constitution conceives of the Indian nation as a liberal democracy in which the public discourse enables a constant dialogue between differing points of view to guide people to do the right thing. When, on occasion, conduct falls out of line, the state steps in to correct the offenders.
Seeking Beyond the Elite
The charge of sedition against the JNU students union president is ridiculous. The Supreme Court has reiterated the position, time and again, that the charge of sedition is valid only when active incitement to violence is involved. Even advocacy of revolution or of Khalistan, it has ruled, does not, by itself, merit the charge.
But this ridiculous act takes on an ominous meaning when seen as an instance of the strategy of using state power to intervene in campus politics to shore up the position of the student wing of the Sangh Parivar, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP). The same strategy was used, again using the charge of anti-nationalism, in Hyderabad university to discipline Ambedkarites to the ABVP’s advantage, leading to Rohith Vemula’s suicide.
Strengthening Indian democracy by expanding inclusion and empowerment to embrace wider sections of society beyond the elite is true nationalism. Branding tribal people trying to defend their minimal rights, as well as anyone reporting on police atrocities against tribal women, antinational is not nationalism. Labelling young students groping their way to democratic positions in the heat of campus politics as anti-national is not nationalism.
In fact, by reducing the Indian nation to a Hindu elite, such patriots do serious harm to India and its emergence on the global stage. More than from Kashmiri students choosing to study at campuses in non-Kashmiri parts of India, India needs protection from these zealots of pseudonationalism.