Perhaps the only thing more vexatious than the farce being enacted on the campus of the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) are the columns in defence of the provocateurs. Despite several videos surfacing that clearly show slogans not only expressing sympathy for a man Indian courts – including the apex one – have repeatedly declared a terrorist but also calling for the Balkanisation and destruction of India, the Indian chatterati have rushed to lambast the government for taking excessive measures against the provocateurs.
The crux of the debate lies in that the government sees the slogans raised as seditious while India’s esteemed quill slingers believe that even seditious speech should be allowed in a liberal democracy. There is no denying that the government has been typically ham-handed and half-hearted in its response to the situation but that does not nullify the merit of their position. Whether the actions and words of the agitators amounts to sedition is something the courts can decide; prima facie, the police think they have a good case and it is worth bearing in mind that there is multi-partisan support in India for an amendment passed by the university’s namesake that introduced limitations to the freedom of expression.
Be that as it may, it has been asserted that sedition laws have no place in a liberal democracy. Yet it might just as easily be argued that a liberal democracy that has elections with term limits and plenty of avenues for redress has no need of seditious agents and any such elements are a public menace.
The United States, a favourite example among copy-paste intelligentsia, has been highlighted as an example, particularly the landmark Brandenburg v. Ohio decision. Yet sedition remains on the law books and has gained the company of other laws such as the Patriot Act. Of course, Washington remains a pastmaster in anukula shastra: the Authorisation to Use Military Force (AUMF), extraordinary rendition, and enhanced interrogation are but the latest in a long history of convenient judicial mechanisms that allow the US government some latitude in its operations despite the spirit of the freedoms enshrined in the Bill of Rights.
However, the United States – and Europe – do not share the same historical experience as India and have grown to have different priorities and values. Singapore serves as a better model for India culturally as well as juridically. In two recent cases, the Southeast Asian city-state has indicated that freedom of expression is not a primary right but one subject to public order considerations. India’s first amendment seems to indicate the same. Singaporean law does not look for intent but for “seditious tendency” in an act, its primary concern being the stability of racial and religious relations. Whatever textbook Indian idealists may dream from, these issues have plagued the Indian polity since independence as well.
One retort to the arrests has been to ask if the Indian state is so weak as to feel threatened by an uncouth bunch of provocateurs. This example of vacuous intellectualism is a victim of its own historical revisionism. It is not the Indian state that is threatened but the Indian nation, an important aspect, some would say, of modern nation-state couplings. There is a legitimate discussion to be had, despite gaining independence, on whether the Indian nation-building project was completed. The machinery of a modern state was easy to continue or copy and impose, but the country’s identity has remained fractured. At least since independence, if not earlier, minority rights has become code for taking potshots at the vast Hindu majority. Only the majority marriage customs were tampered with; only their religious and educational institutions were liable to be taken over by the government, and only their sentiments were impervious to injury. Worse, any vocalisation of these grievances was tantamount to ‘saffron’ fascism.
Speech expressing sympathy for enemies of the Indian nation (and state) assault that inchoate identity, especially so because that enmity is founded upon religious difference to which political hatred is only an extension. Nowhere is this connection clearer than over Kashmir, whose secession some of the crowd at JNU are alleged to have supported. The rootless cosmopolitan affect some Leftists like to feign is a luxury of only mature and stable nations as the events of the late 19th and early 20th centuries show us.
The purpose of the gathering at JNU was to provoke a reaction from the government. If the mob had truly wished to honour an executed terrorist, there were plenty of ways to do so quietly – a vigil, a few speeches in an auditorium, perhaps even a film showing the excesses of the big bad Indian state. That was not what the provocateurs did for that was not their intent. They wanted to anger and in that, they succeeded brilliantly. This is not a new technique of the anti-establishmentarians, though one would be forgiven thinking so given how the Bharatiya Janata Party and its affiliates always fall into the same trap. Beef-eating festivals are a popular way of goading the majority Hindu population. Enjoyed by millions in the privacy of their homes and easily available in restaurants across India, Hindus are baited into overreaction by advertising special festivals to consume the meat. The support of Afzal Guru fits the same pattern.
Just a couple of months ago, the media’s ersatz intellectuals wondered if India was growing more intolerant. The fact is, however, that the country has been too tolerant of intolerance for too long. To be tolerant of intolerance is, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, showing neutrality between the fire and the fire brigade. For all the taunting of the majority, even a superficial slight to a minority is met with the full force of media sanctimony and/or riots. Successive Congress governments pampered the minority voting bloc and an impressive network of academics, NGOs, and others was developed that dominated the public sphere. Whether it is the advent of social media or something else, this commanding position has experienced a serious pushback recently. Political commentary has experienced a pendulum effect and as is customary, seen a few excesses by virtue of the zeal of newcomers to the game. The angry reaction to the instigation at JNU is just that, a refusal to cede ground to political miscreants without contest. The government’s actions against the chief culprits has met with at least as much applause as opprobrium, with some urging an even more stringent follow-through. The commotion in the news studios is caused by the political Right’s new-found voice.
For those willing to step back and allow themselves a sardonic chuckle, the media’s amnesia about the police assault on protesters and hecklers at JNU in 2005 during the unveiling of a statue of Nehru by then prime minister Manmohan Singh will provide some tart lightness. And of course, that the provocateurs are now seeking protection from the same state that they wish destroyed is a delicious irony all in itself.
This post appeared on FirstPost on February 17, 2016.