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Be Warned, the Assault on JNU is Part of a Pattern / India’s angst / India’s descent into muscle power / What Passes for Sedition in India /

28 February 2016

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  • Be Warned, the Assault on JNU is Part of a Pattern
  • India’s angst
  • The coming of night - India’s descent into muscle power
  • What Passes for Sedition in India
  • Sedition and the government

The Wire - 16 February 2016

Be Warned, the Assault on JNU is Part of a Pattern

By Romila Thapar

There is by now little doubt that we are currently being governed by those that seem to have an anti-intellectual mind-set. This spells trouble for universities that are concerned with high standards of teaching and research.

Recent events at JNU raise many questions pertinent to us as citizens of India. The questions have become imperative because it is apparent that many who govern us have little sensitivity to understanding the fundamental issues crucial to governance. For example, what are the necessary aspects of a democratic system, or how essential are equality and human rights as components of democracy to be taught and nurtured in educational institutions. Every articulation of thought and action is judged these days by its immediate political implications and seldom by the wider context of ethics, society and citizenship.

A recent example was the discussion on capital punishment where a handful of students had gathered on the JNU campus. Obviously the names of those recently given this punishment cropped up in the discussion, and very soon this became the dominant political aspect and the sole consideration, setting aside all other questions. Slogans took over in a confused fashion as happens in such situations and the serious issue of capital punishment was lost. Capital punishment is not just an issue of concern to nationalism alone. It involves aspects of ethics, morality, religion as well as the context of the punishment, and it is not in the least bit surprising that opinions differ on all these issues. The logical follow-up could have been a more extended discussion of the subject, from other perspectives, rather than the insistence by some of those present that this was an anti-national issue, and their then proceeding to have the government intervene and clamp down on it.

Sedition and secession

As has been said by almost everyone who has written on this event, the terms that the government uses in its charges against the JNU students are problematic and cannot be bandied about in a casual way. Charges of sedition, extremely serious as they are, nevertheless are slapped on anyone for virtually any critical opinion about the country. Even the dictionary meaning of sedition is enticement to violence and the overthrow of the state/government. As others have pointed out, there is a considerable difference between advocacy of violent methods and actual incitement to violence. But such distinctions seem to be beyond the comprehension of most politicians.

To maintain that a statement made about the possibility of a segment of the Indian nation breaking away is sedition, shows neither an understanding of the word nor knowledge of the historical occasions in the last half century when such statements were made with reference to other parts of India. This is not the first time that Kashmir has been mentioned as part of such a suggestion. There have been earlier threats of secession from other parts of the nation, such as Nagaland and Tamil Nadu, and the intention of establishing the Sikh state of Khalistan to mention just a few. Some others are not completely silent even in present times. Threats of secession are in part the way in which nationalisms play out in nations that extend over large territories and multiple cultures. It has to be understood as a process of change and debated rather than being silenced by calling it sedition.

The debate on sedition goes back to the early years of independence when the attempt to silence free speech was successfully resisted by the Supreme Court, (Brij Bhushan vs. State of Delhi and Romesh Thapar vs. Union of India). Nehru was in favour of expunging sedition as unconstitutional. Those were the days when democracy was valued and was nurtured. We should familiarise ourselves with the many occasions when sedition has been objected to and on valid grounds, and therefore consider its removal from the body of laws. Laws that can be easily misused should be reconsidered. Governance does imply taking an intelligent interest in the debates on the laws by which we are meant to be governed.

The first foray

Then there are those who, because they are critical of some aspects of the nation, are immediately condemned as anti-national. Taken literally this adjective would apply to a large number of Indians who are critical of various aspects of events in India. Governments turn by turn have described people as anti-national but the frequency of this accusation has increased in the last couple of years. It has been applied so often by the BJP that the word has become virtually meaningless, but not harmless, because it can be used to politically persecute a person. The ancestor to the BJP – the Jan Sangh party, when it was part of the government of Morarji Desai, subsequent to the Emergency – criticized the history textbooks written by some of us and published by the NCERT. We were accused of being anti-Indian and anti-national for the views we held on ancient Indian history. The government demanded that our books be proscribed. But in the election that followed the government fell, so the books survived.

Almost 25 years later, in the first NDA government the matter was taken up again. The then education minister, Murli Manohar Joshi and his BJP cohorts referred to the authors of the textbooks – and I was included in this – as not only anti-Hindu but also anti-national, anti-Indian, and academic terrorists of the worst kind. Enthusiastic politicians demanded that we should be arrested and punished for writing these books. Fortunately, the first NDA government did not take itself too seriously and did not go around arresting many teachers and students for being anti-national, largely because their definition of what was anti-national became a matter for ridicule. Anti-national for them was in effect a limited term, namely anti-Hindu.

Pathetic attempt

In the latest move of the BJP-RSS government pertaining to universities, the student union president who was arrested at JNU has been accused of being anti-national and indulging in sedition. He has been accused of raising slogans on independence for Kashmir and praise of Pakistan. The irony is that the student union president who was doing just the opposite of what would be regarded as anti-national and seditious and was trying to close the discussion, was the one who was arrested.

It is now being held, very much as an after thought, that the group that held the meeting were instigated by the Lashkar-e-Tayyaba. This is at best a rather pathetic attempt to institute a charge of terrorism with no other evidence but a dubious tweet. Does government evidence rely on tweets? And are dubious tweets enough to accuse a person of sedition ? This is not just a case of the government and the police being adamant, but it appears to be a well-planned strategy to destabilise JNU. There was just too much unusual alacrity in the way events moved. One can’t help but feel that somewhere along the line, the present government has lost its initial confidence in itself and is now resorting to unpleasant tactics. An example of this was the way in which JNU faculty and students and some media people were beaten up at the Patiala House Court by a bunch of lawyers, said to be of the BJP, when there was to be a hearing of the case against the student union president. Are the courts of law now going to have to resort to fisticuffs?

Education as catechism

The ideology central to the BJP-RSS has no space or use for liberal thought. Education for such organisations means only what can be called a kind of catechism. This is a memorisation of a narrow set of questions rooted in faith and belief and an equally narrow set of answers that prohibit any doubt or deviation. The same technique applies to all subjects. Therefore educational centres that allow questioning and discussion are anathema and have to be dismantled.

Since what is referred to as Hinduism does not confine itself to a single sacred book, nor is there exclusive worship of a single monotheistic God, the notion of blasphemy so crucial to the Christian and Islamic religions has little application to the Hindu religion. However, in the Hindutva version of Hinduism, aimed at establishing a Hindu Rashtra – a state where Hindus are the primary citizens and the purpose of governance is to uphold Hindu principles – the notion of a kind of blasphemy is applied to those that are critical of Hindutva that is equated with the Hindu Rashtra. This is then equated with the nation. Criticism of it is described as anti-nationalism so such criticism can be silenced. To call criticism as “hurt sentiment” is now much too mild. It has to be treated as blasphemy/anti-nationalism, and treated as a serious crime. This helps to convert a secular state into a religious state, which ultimately is the aim of the RSS.

The BJP-RSS government currently in power is unable to have a dialogue with an institution such as the JNU and other similar universities such as the Hyderabad Central University. The emphasis from the start in such universities has been on questioning existing knowledge, exploring new knowledge and relating knowledge to the existing reality. This is the very opposite of merely handing down selected information without questioning it. This is a problem that the BJP-RSS government has to face with a number of pace-setting prestigious centres of learning that do not substitute catechism for learning, and instead demand the right to debate a subject that may be thought to be blasphemous to the nation as defined by Hindutva. So the alternative is to try and dismantle such centres of learning by creating disturbances. This will eventually prevent them from functioning as they are intended to do.

Method in the madness

There seems to be something of a pattern in the organisation of such disturbances, since there is a repetition of the same procedure in each case. The similarities are curious. The first step is to ensure that the person appointed in a position of authority in the institution is relatively unknown, as have been many of the directors, chairmen, and vice-chancellors appointed in the last 18 months in various institutions. They are relied upon to follow the orders of the government. The next step is to locate a group preferably debating contemporary issues, and instruct the local AVBP cadres to create a confrontation with such a group in the course of the meeting, and the confrontation could even result in some violence. This allows the ABVP to claim that they were attacked first and for a complaint to be made to the local BJP politician, readily to hand, who then takes it up with the minister, and who then orders the authority concerned to rusticate the students, to bring the police into the premises and arrest the non-AVBP students, irrespective of whether or not they were involved in the confrontation.

The normal university reaction in the past has been not to allow police on the campus or to make arrests. The exception was during the Emergency. Generally, a committee of enquiry is appointed by the university. It is treated as an internal matter of the institution. Police action can only be permitted if there is a serious breach of law. A group of students shouting slogans is not a serious breach of law. What was done in the JNU reminds me of the saying “to bring a sledge-hammer to crack an egg.” The intention was obviously not just to crack the egg but to smash it completely. But it looks as if the egg is now on the face of the government.

One might well ask why the BJP-RSS is so bent on dismantling institutions of learning and converting them into teaching shops. Is it the premium on conformity and out-of-date knowledge that the BJP-RSS would like to define as education? Is it the kind of education that is given in the shishu–mandirs and madrassas that is seen as ideal in form? Interestingly the institutions that come under attack are those that are associated with freedom of thought, the asking of questions, the advancing of knowledge. Those that conform to education as learning by rote and providing supervised answers are not interfered with all that much, since this pattern of learning fits into a catechism style.

There is by now little doubt that we are currently being governed by those that seem to have an anti-intellectual mind-set. This spells trouble for universities that are concerned with high standards of teaching and research, and it would seem beyond the comprehension of those governing. One can only ask why the government is so apprehensive of intellectuals? Is the government being ham-handed with universities because from the minister down they fear the potential power of those universities that encourage their students to think independently? Or is this a deliberate way of creating a general ambience of fear in the institutions? The existence of such a fear would make it easier to impose syllabi, courses and methods of teaching emanating from the think tanks of the RSS. Not to mention that it makes those employed in universities more pliant.

A culture worth fighting for

For those of us who were among the founding members of JNU, the events of the last few days at the university is a moment of a far bigger intellectual and emotional crisis than has ever happened before in its history. JNU was founded on the principles of democratic functioning, both administratively and in the content of the education it imparted. It meant a generally positive relationship between teacher and student, and a frequency of free discussion both on matters academic and on the world we live in. It meant more rigorous training in the subjects taught and this experience improved the work both of teachers and students, and all of which was underlined by an insistence on critical enquiry. We were conscious of stretching our minds to beyond what was readily known and in encouraging students to look beyond the obvious. It was these factors that made it into a prestigious university, a trend-setter in many subjects that were taught in other Indian universities. It was again these factors that gave it international recognition, on par in many subjects with the best universities outside India.

This of course is the opposite of the rather pathetic BJP-RSS version of what is meant by education at any level, judging by the views of the HRD ministry. To see the BJP-RSS government trying to annul what we have achieved in JNU and reduce the university to a pedestrian teaching shop, is like having to see the work on one’s lifetime being systematically destroyed. Many of us chose to work in JNU rather than take up lucrative positions in universities abroad, because we had a vision that we could make it among the best academic centres located in India. And that excellence it has experienced. As one academic who lived a substantial part of my life working in the JNU, and contributing to this vision, the hostility of the current government to the JNU leaves me with a sense of despair and sadness for the future of universities in India. However, I must add that experiencing the protest of the JNU community against the attack that has been mounted on it, does make me feel that perhaps the values that we had tried to inculcate in its early years have taken root. When JNU recovers from the trauma of this attack it is likely to be even more committed to the values for which it was created – excellence not only in intellectual enterprise but also in endorsing a humane and open society upholding the rights of every Indian citizen.

Romila Thapar is a historian who taught at Jawaharlal Nehru University for many years.

o o o

Dawn - Feb 27, 2016

India’s angst

by Irfan Husain

“PATRIOTISM”, said Samuel Johnson in 1775, “is the last refuge of the scoundrel.”

Over the intervening years, this famous quote may have become a cliché, but has lost none of its sting. This is because patriotism continues to be used to whip up virulent nationalism and fierce religious extremism. Governments and demagogues constantly appeal to this base sentiment to control and direct citizens and mobs.

We see this at work in the ongoing American presidential campaign where Donald Trump exhorts supporters to help him “make America great again”. Considering that the US is already the richest and most powerful country in the world, it is not clear what steroids he is offering, but the rhetoric is enough for voters to rally to his banner.
India has left the secular path charted by its founding fathers.

Closer to home, the recent furore over the arrest of a student leader from the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) on the charge of sedition shows how an insecure government can use an archaic, colonial-era law to whip up nationalist support. When Kanhaiya Kumar was detained and then beaten up by lawyers in court, liberal Indians were outraged.

During this ongoing controversy, I have exchanged several emails with an Indian reader whose views diverge from the liberal mainstream. In one email, he writes:

“Over recent decades, JNU has become a factory that churns out government financed leftists who go out to promote political causes. Kanhaiya Kumar is a 32-year old ‘student’, ostensibly coming from a very poor family. His ‘field work’ and the recent notoriety will give him a career in politics, the most lucrative of all professions in India.”

This somewhat jaundiced view overlooks the long and honourable tradition of students opposing the official line, and often taking left-wing positions. This is an expression of the passion and idealism the young thankfully possess, and has often been a force driving change. Students around the world have hel­ped to bring down oppressive governments, or forced them to withdraw unpopular policies.

In this case, Kanhaiya has been accused of shouting slogans calling for India’s destruction, a charge he denies. But even if he did call for the country’s ‘barbadi’, surely this was a wild rhetorical device, and not a serious declaration of intent. The government’s overreaction has severely damaged its claim to be a modernising administration.

But this is only one in a long chain of events that has taken India from the secular, democratic path its founding fathers had charted. Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself presided over one of the worst bloodbaths in India when, while chief minister of Gujarat, his administration stood by as well over 1,000 Muslims were slaughtered by rampaging Hindu mobs.

M.F. Hussain, the iconic Indian artist, was forced to live his last years in exile after a series of court cases were filed accusing him of ‘hurting the sentiments of people’. In 1998, his house was attacked by thugs from Bajrang Dal, and his paintings vandalised. Called the Picasso of India, he was hounded for depicting Mother India as a nude woman.

Last year, Pakistan’s ex-foreign minister’s book-launch in Mumbai was disrupted by goons from the extreme right-wing Shiv Sena. The same organisation has prevented the Pakistani cricket team from playing in Mumbai, and last year, stopped a Pakistani play from being staged in New Delhi. In another sign of growing Hindu extremism, a Muslim was killed by a mob on the suspicion of possessing beef.

These are just a few random incidents that highlight an accelerating departure from secular, democratic values. For Indian liberals, this is a deeply disturbing trend, and one unlikely to be reversed anytime soon. Even though a right-wing BJP government is in power now, Congress was not above pandering to Hindutva sentiments when it was politically expedient.

The truth is that with the passage of time, the elites of the post-colonial era, raised and educated in Western values, have seen their power wane. Moral and fiscal integrity are seen as old fashioned, and power has shifted to populists and demagogues who better reflect the public mood. The left’s infighting when in the opposition, and ineptitude when in office, has greatly weakened it. Although India’s constitution is secular, it no longer represents the majority’s worldview.

In a sense, the changes taking place in India reflect those initiated in Pakistan in the 1980s under the baneful dictatorship of Ziaul Haq. For instance, few Pakistanis — especially in the younger generation — are willing to accept that Jinnah was a staunch secularist.

And let us not forget that when a Pakistani cricket fan, Umar Daraz, waved an Indian flag after a match-winning knock by Kohli against Australia, he was promptly arrested. The police charged him with acting ‘against the ideology of Pakistan’. But UK citizens of foreign descent often wave their national flags when their teams are playing against England. None of them are locked up.

So why are we so caught up with these childish notions of patriotism and jingoism? When will we finally grow up?

o o o

The Telegraph - 28 February 2016

The coming of night - India’s descent into muscle power

by Rudrangshu Mukherjee

The famous declaration of Gopal Krishna Gokhale about what Bengal thinks today India thinks tomorrow has become an irrelevant cliché. No one seriously thinks of Bengal today as the harbinger of the future in the world of ideas or in any other sphere. But the time is upon us to revive and retrieve that declaration not with pride but in shame.

Not a very long time ago a posse of policemen aided by Trinamul Congress cadre entered the Jadavpur University campus at the dead of night to break up a students’ sit-in; students, including girls, were beaten up. (The TMC member of parliament who spoke so eloquently and admirably in the Lok Sabha the other day to condemn police action in Jawaharlal Nehru University and about the Janus-faced character of nationalism conveniently erased this police action in Jadavpur University perhaps because the university is in his own constituency.) More recently a student was arrested from JNU and was beaten up badly by lawyers while the police remained passive bystanders. In neither case were any of the offenders - those who took the law into their own hands - charged or arrested. Did Bengal show the way?

There is one other similarity to which attention needs to be drawn. In both cases the concerned leaders remained eloquent by their silence.

These events and others where supporters of the sangh parivar in Delhi and elsewhere and the cadre of the TMC have used violence, boasted about using violence and incited violence are revealing an ominous political trend in India. It is significant that there are groups of people, supported by political leaders who are unashamed - on the contrary proud - of their use and advocacy of violence against individuals and groups who do not share their views.

The counterpart of this kind of exhibition of intolerance of dissent is authoritarianism. Political leaders with massive popular mandates are assuming that they have the right to impose their views on people who disagree with them. The first step is to label the dissenters with epithets that incite passion - "anti-national’’, "Maoists’’, "terrorists’’, "perpetrators of sedition’’ are some of the common labels being used for anyone who dares to criticize. These epithets are then being used as an alibi for State action - arrests, humiliation, denial of bail. The State action is being bolstered by actions of party cadre and party loyalists who are rushing in to harangue, abuse and beat up so called "offenders’’. The abuse continues in social media. An ambience of terror and intimidation is being generated.

The target of this terror is a predictable group, the secular, anti- Hindutva, pro-democratic sections of the population, India’s most endangered species - the secular intelligentsia. What is also alarming is that attacks against this group are tapping into a pool of public opinion that believes that India should be a strong State, that tolerance is not a virtue, that nationalism is an unalloyed virtue, that universities should have no autonomy and what is worse, "some people should be taught a lesson’’. It would be simplistic and erroneous to believe that only the ignorant and the obscurantists hold such outlandish views. These views are held by educated people, seen and heard in clubs and cocktail parties, people who one would expect to be upholders of the rule of law and the Indian Constitution. This pool of support and the popular mandate provide the sanction for the slide towards authoritarianism.

It could be said - and will be said - how can there be a slide towards authoritarianism when Parliament still exists and is functioning to the extent that the Opposition is voicing its concern on the floors of the two Houses of Parliament? The authoritarianism is manifest in a different, but not an irrelevant, theatre. This is at the street level - the way supporters and party loyalists are mobilizing themselves to suppress dissent and the articulation of criticism. They are also choosing their own ways of punishing those who differ with them - smearing them with ink, humiliating them, beating them up, lynching them and so on. These are acts akin to those the storm troopers and the Hitler Youth carried out in Nazi Germany. The processes of the rule of law have ceased to matter; what is decisive is the use of muscle power to impose one particular ideological view, Hindutva.

Such actions have the consent of the ideological and the political leaders. It has become clear over many incidents that the prime minister, even though he was elected as the prime minister of India, will not utter a single word to condemn such actions. This has raised eyebrows among certain circles, especially among those who, without being champions of Hindutva, had hopes that Narendra Modi would provide good governance.

There is a fundamental misconception in the expression of such surprise. Mr Modi does not condemn because he does not believe such acts deserve to be condemned. The violent suppression of dissent and the imposition of the Hindutva ideology are essential parts of his core ideology. These are beliefs that he has imbibed when he trained as a loyal cadre of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. The fact that as the chief minister of Gujarat, he put the veneer of development on his ideology does not mean that he has abandoned his core beliefs. He believes in Hindutva, in making India a Hindu rashtra and in making sections of the Indian population into second class citizens or if possible in eliminating them. If all this requires doses of violence so be it: it will make Hindu India a strong State. Mr Modi has failed to be the prime minister of the people of India. His aims and aspirations are fundamentally at odds with the pluralist spirit of the many civilizations that have made India.

This is not to suggest that Mr Modi is ordering or directing the violence, the intolerance and the suppression of dissent. He does not need to. His supporters are second-guessing him and carrying out actions that they know will win his approval. Mr Modi does not need to implement his own ideological agenda, there are people - many of them physically far away from him, ordinary cadre of the sangh parivar - who are doing that job of implementation and doing it mercilessly. They are working towards Hindutva and therefore towards Mr Modi’s core beliefs.

The emergence of Mr Modi as the undisputed and unchallenged leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party has resulted in greater clarity in the ideological goals. This has been facilitated at the level of ruling by the erosion of collective government. Everyone - cabinet minister and babu - knows from where the power flows. Mr Modi’s personalized form of rule is creating conditions for initiatives from below and his foreign trips are winning for him a claque of applauders who have no stakes in India. The mood carries Mr Modi in as much as he makes the mood.

Thus is created the social and the charismatic basis of a form of rule that will not only destroy democracy but also bring down forms of civilized existence. A form of rule in which only brutality will prevail. Students of history know what such regimes of power are called.

o o o

The New York Times

What Passes for Sedition in India

Nilanjana S. Roy

FEB. 21, 2016

NEW DELHI — Two hours into the protest march on Thursday, the students were still streaming in. They came from Delhi’s prestigious Jawaharlal Nehru University (J.N.U.) and from at least six other universities across the country.

They held red roses and long-stemmed saffron cosmos, and with chants, steady and deliberate, called for freedom, equality and the right to express themselves freely. Some of their placards read, “Dissent is not sedition,” or “Save Constitution! Save Democracy! Save University!”

Flowers and words of hope: These are small things to hold out against the toxic lies of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (B.J.P.) and its violent pseudo-nationalist propaganda.

It has been a turbulent year on Indian campuses, with students speaking out more and more — against caste prejudice, sexist housing rules or the appointment of B.J.P. loyalists as university administrators. Senior members of the B.J.P. and the Rastriya Swayamsevak Sangh (R.S.S.), a Hindu nationalist organization with major influence over Prime Minister Narendra Modi, have responded not with dialogue but with persecution, not with negotiation but with clampdowns.

On Feb. 13, Kanhaiya Kumar, the president of J.N.U.’s student union, was arrested on sedition charges. Mr. Kumar, who is from an underprivileged caste, had recently given a speech at an event organized by a group of other students to mark the third anniversary of the hanging of Muhammad Afzal, also known as Afzal Guru, who was found guilty of being involved in the 2001 terrorist attack on India’s Parliament. Afzal Guru’s execution and the Supreme Court judgment upholding his death sentence are still the subject of intense debate.

A bruising, high-voltage clash soon played out in the gladiatorial arena of news television. Prominent B.J.P. members declared that the government would not tolerate any “anti-national” activities, accused the students of having links to terrorists and called for closing J.N.U. NewsX broadcast footage which it claimed featured Mr. Kumar shouting “Long Live Pakistan!” and other purportedly seditious slogans. A TimesNow anchor harangued Umar Khalid, one of the students who had organized the event, calling him a “secessionist” and “unpatriotic.”

ABP News has since proved that these clips were doctored. Some participants in the event had indeed shouted, “As many Afzals will rise from homes as the number of Afzals you murder” and asked for “Bharat ki Barbaadi,” the destruction of India. But it is unclear whether it was students who made these statements, or outsiders trying to cause trouble for them. And Mr. Kumar wasn’t among them.

In his speech, Mr. Kumar had said, “We are of this country and love the soil of India. We fight for those 80 percent of this country’s people who are poor.” He had called for “azaadi,” freedom, picking up a slogan long popular among Kashmiri separatists and women demanding greater rights. And he had attacked the B.J.P., the party’s student wing and the R.S.S. as “traitors to the nation.”

Mr. Kumar had also talked about the suicide of Rohith Vemula, a dalit student at Hyderabad University who killed himself last month after enduring weeks of pressure. The university had stopped paying his stipend and suspended him over a political dispute between a group of dalit students, including Mr. Vemula, and a prominent right-wing student leader.

This is what passes for sedition in India today.

And when Mr. Kumar was taken to court for a hearing last week, he was assaulted. A couple of days earlier, at the same courthouse, a group of lawyers had attacked journalists and J.N.U. faculty. The police had made little attempt to stop the violence. Vikram Chauhan, a lawyer who led the assaults and identifies himself as a B.J.P. party worker, was not arrested. Instead, he was allowed to lead a march of self-appointed patriots to India Gate, the iconic war memorial in the heart of official Delhi.

The message is clear: Violence in the name of ultra-nationalism is acceptable. Not even the courts are safe spaces. Challenge the state, or the B.J.P., at your peril.

Unease over such bald-faced repression is spreading beyond students. The protest that was held in central Delhi on Thursday, perhaps 15,000-strong, also included office workers, retirees, lawyers, grassroots anti-caste activists and local labor and trade unions.

Rabia Khatun, 38, had made the long bus journey from Khajuri Colony, on the outskirts of the capital; she represents a domestic workers union. She drew a straight line between Mr. Vemula’s suicide and Mr. Kumar’s arrest. “This is the new caste war,” she said. “They are attacking J.N.U. because they don’t like the lower castes gaining power. They will push the dalits to suicide, and fill the jails with lower castes if we don’t stop them.”

Budhia, a 55-year-old factory worker who had traveled with a friend from the neighboring town of Manesar, said, “The B.J.P. doesn’t like the poor. You will find it’s mostly the poor and the backward castes who are called seditious in this country. I am here for Rohith. I am here for Kanhaiya. I am here for Umar Khalid and all the people in this country who suffer from the lies thrown at them.”

In his suicide letter, Mr. Vemula had written: “The value of a man was reduced to his immediate identity and nearest possibility. To a vote. To a number. To a thing. Never was a man treated as a mind.”

At the back of the march, a cluster of students held up handmade signs in rejoinder, echoing Mr. Vemula’s despair with a new hope: “We are no longer just a vote, a number, a thing. We are young. The future is ours.” For now, this imagined future, of true democracy and equality, is under siege.

Nilanjana S. Roy is the author of “The Wildings,” “The Hundred Names of Darkness” and “The Girl Who Ate Books.”

o o o

The Hindu, February 16, 2016

Sedition and the government

by Suhrith Parthasarathy

Section 124-A of the IPC, pertaining to sedition, negates the right to dissent, which is an essential condition of any reasonable government. Viewed thus, it is Section 124-A that is ‘anti-India’, that is opposed to the idea of a legitimate, liberal democratic state.

The arrest by the Delhi Police, at the behest of the Home Ministry, of Kanhaiya Kumar, president of the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) Students’ Union, on complaints of sedition, represents the latest deplorable attack on free speech by the Indian state. The move presents with vivid clarity the government’s pointed efforts at quelling any and every form of dissent. It also, through the invocation of Section 124-A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), 1860, provides a stark reminder of the sheer depravity of some of our antiquated, colonial-era laws.

Mr. Kumar’s arrest followed a complaint made by assorted members of the right-wing students’ body, Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP). According to the ABVP, Mr. Kumar was present at a meeting inside the JNU campus organised to protest against the hanging of the 2001 Parliament attack convict Afzal Guru, in which several “anti-national” statements were supposedly bandied about. Thus far, the evidence presented fails to point to Mr. Kumar having actually uttered anything remotely bordering on the controversial. But even assuming he went as far as to question the integrity of the Indian state, his arrest ought to be viewed as a serious affront to liberal democratic values.

In the case of Section 124-A of the IPC, which defines sedition in wide, expansive terms, and punishes the act with imprisonment for life, the danger doesn’t lie merely in its abuse, or even in its potential for causing anti-democratic mischief. Unlike other provisions that might assume a pitiless character based on the nature of their usage, Section 124-A is intrinsically draconian. The problems in the clause are obviously apparent in its wordings, and the purpose that it unequivocally seeks to achieve: a suppression of all kinds of opposition.

A relic of our colonial past

Although sedition was originally a part of the IPC, as drafted by Thomas Macaulay, it was bizarrely dropped from the law when it was enacted in 1860. A decade later, the offence was introduced into the IPC as Section 124-A, following explicit recognition from the colonial government that the earlier omission was based on a mistake. The provision, as it reads today after some amendments, defines sedition as any action — whether by words, signs or visible representation — which “brings or attempts to bring into hatred or contempt, or excites or attempts to excite disaffection towards the Government established by law in India”. Tellingly, the section also contains a clarification to the effect that the word “disaffection” includes disloyalty and all feelings of enmity.

This definition of sedition, as is only plainly evident, is exceedingly broadly worded. Its vagueness certainly did wonders for the colonialists. They famously used the clause in three separate, successful trials of Bal Gangadhar Tilak, and, also, later, in prosecuting Mahatma Gandhi in 1922. “Section 124-A under, which I am happily charged, is perhaps the prince among the political sections of the IPC designed to suppress the liberty of the citizen,” said Gandhi, in response to the charges made on him.

During the course of the British rule, there was a general consensus that Section 124-A was intended to indict any speech that as much as questioned the moral superiority of government, that harboured any sentiments of ill feeling towards the state. Policies of government, the judiciary largely agreed, could be questioned, so long as one didn’t excite hatred, contempt or disaffection. As the lawyer and jurist A.G. Noorani once wrote, what this really meant was that the government had to be “loved, not hated”.

The limits of free speech

In 1942, for the first time, the courts in India raised pressing questions against the use of sedition as a weapon to chill all innocent forms of dissidence. Sir Maurice Gwyer, the chief justice of the Federal Court, ruled that “public disorder, or the reasonable anticipation or likelihood of public disorder, is the gist of the offence”. In so doing, he drew a necessity for a link between words uttered and actual threat of violence for maintaining a prosecution of sedition. But Gwyer’s ruling fell short of devising any rational test to determine how this link had to be drawn, as to how imminent an act of violence had to be for the state to prosecute a speech or expression. Nonetheless his reasoning gave to the offence of sedition an iota of legitimacy. Just years later, though, before the Constitution came into force, Gwyer’s good work was undone by the Privy Council. The offence of sedition, it wrote, in 1947, was concerned only with the “exciting or attempting to excite in others certain bad feelings towards the government”. Any requirement for a connection between speech and violence was nonchalantly dispelled.

After the Constitution was adopted in 1950, it appeared Section 124-A would soon be denounced as an abhorrent relic of our colonial past. After all, efforts made by some members of the Constituent Assembly to include sedition as an express ground for limiting speech in Article 19(2) had been successfully resisted. Moreover, the reasoning adopted in the two earliest free speech cases decided by the Supreme Court — Brij Bhushan v. State of Delhi and Romesh Thapar v. Union of India — also pointed to the incompatibility of laws of sedition with the Constitution. In both these cases, efforts to ban publications on the purported threats that they posed to public safety were ruled unconstitutional, since the exception in Article 19(2), as it read then, was restricted to dangers to the security of the state. When the first amendment to the Constitution was introduced, to include public order as a specific limitation to free speech, Prime Minister Nehru was still categorical in his belief that the offence of sedition was fundamentally unconstitutional. “Now so far as I am concerned [Section 124-A] is highly objectionable and obnoxious and it should have no place both for practical and historical reasons, if you like, in any body of laws that we might pass,” he said, in Parliament. “The sooner we get rid of it the better.”

Yet, more than 65 years later, sedition continues to not only remain in the IPC, but also occupies a pride of place in the state’s arsenal. This is because, astonishingly, in spite of two different High Courts having found sedition unconstitutional, in 1962, the Supreme Court upheld Section 124-A, in Kedar Nath Singh v. State of Bihar. Here, the court adopted a flawed premise that the law was enacted in the interest of public order, which was by then one of the specifically recognised limitations to free speech. Although this ruling is in accord with elements of Gwyer’s reasoning, it is clear, as we saw earlier, that the colonial government thought of seditious speech as punishable on its own accord. They saw no requirement for the establishment of any link between such expressions and the maintenance of public order. Even when the first amendment specifically included the interest of public order as a recognised limitation to free speech under the Constitution, seditious speech was still considered as being outside the contours of such constraints. In other words, our lawmakers at the time thought of sedition as being antithetical to the guarantee of free speech. But the court in Kedar Nath Singh ignored all the apparent contradictions in allowing sedition to remain on the IPC. While grounding the legality of the provision on supposed public order considerations, the court also failed to establish any rational test on how to determine when speech in disaffection of the government could be construed as causing a disruption of public order.

A weapon to crush opposition

In the decades since Kedar Nath Singh, Indian free speech jurisprudence has gone through substantial change. The court has proceeded towards expounding something resembling a practical theory that distinguishes advocacy and incitement. In 1995, the court acquitted some men who had raised a number of seemingly incendiary slogans in the wake of Indira Gandhi’s assassination, on the grounds that there existed no link between the slogans and actual threats to public order. Last year, in Shreya Singhal v. Union of India, in declaring unconstitutional the notorious Section 66A of the Information Technology Act, the court ruled that speech howsoever offensive, annoying or inconvenient cannot be prosecuted unless its utterance has, at the least, a proximate connection with any incitement to disrupt public order.

However, in spite of the Supreme Court narrowing the scope of sedition, and in spite of the more recently evolved tests to determine when mere speech or expression can be prosecuted, governments have routinely invoked Section 124-A with a view to restricting even benign forms of dissent. To argue against sedition does not tantamount to arguing in favour of absolute free speech. That words which directly provoke violence or which directly threaten the maintenance of public order deserve censure is unquestionable, especially given India’s constitutional structure. But that’s not what the offence of sedition seeks to achieve. At its core, it is a devastating provision that is meant to assist in crushing all opposition to the ruling dispensation. Its use continues to have the effect of chilling free speech and expression in India. Section 124-A of the IPC negates the right to dissent, which is an essential condition of any reasonable government. Viewed thus, it is Section 124-A that is “anti-India”, that is opposed to the idea of a legitimate, liberal democratic state.

(Suhrith Parthasarathy is an advocate practising at the Madras High Court. He is also currently working on a biography of the Supreme Court.)


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