With Rohith Vemula’s suicide and Kanhaiya Kumar’s arrest, some members of the media, intellectuals, professors and politicians (let us designate them as liberals in short) have been raising two points on anti-national sloganeering. The first is that the government has been trying to harass or slap charges of sedition on those who have been raising their voices, and is trying to suppress dissent. The second is that there should be no limit to freedom of expression and that in a free society, there are neither sacred cows nor any bar on anything, however detrimental it may be to the nation.
Let us keep aside, for the time being, how the judiciary would decide what amounts to sedition and whether freedom of expression has no boundaries. Instead, let us see how far the points of liberals pass the scrutiny of reasoning and practicality. Let us analyse the first point of the government slapping charges of sedition on those who raise a voice of dissent. The Hyderabad episode started when the Ambedkar Students’ Union staged a protest on the hanging of Yakub Memon terming it judicial murder. When an ABVP student union leader objected to it, by terming them anti-nationals, he was allegedly attacked and the events, as we know it, followed thereon. In the case of JNU, some students of the university organised a protest on the hanging of Afzal Guru, again terming it judicial murder, with slogans that called for the disintegration of India. The arrest of some students on charges of sedition followed thereon. The issue raised by liberals is that the government is picking out these students and slapping them with sedition charges, when all they did was to express their opinion on some issues. To know the answer to this, we should see why the government did not take exception to the harangue of Kanhaiya Kumar after he was released from jail on bail. He spoke against PM Modi and about liberation from hunger, capitalism and fascism and there was nothing against the nation.
In a democratic country like ours, criticising any government organ, even the army or judiciary does not amount to sedition or anti-nationalism and no one is accused of sedition when then have been doing the same — expressing their disappointment over the system which failed to deliver. Have we not witnessed some who opine that India should have continued to be ruled by the British, rather than by unscrupulous and corrupt politicians? Have we not come across some Indians who strongly express the idea that India is not fit for democracy and should go for army rule to bring in discipline and order in the system? Have we not allowed it when some people are critical of our defence forces and other paramilitary forces when they commit excesses in some places? There are no restrictions on criticising the judgments on legal theories either, without attacking judges who delivered the verdict. We have been criticising our own countrymen about their insincerity, talkativeness, lack of civic sense, laziness and their tendency to look for free doles. Our politicians have been ridiculed, humiliated and charged with baseless allegations many a time. We have not restricted some people from calling our politicians — both ruling and opposition — names, and even ridiculing people occupying august offices for something as silly as their accent. No one has been charged or arrested on sedition charges for any of these activities. Only when somebody wages a war against the nation with an inciteful speech that calls for disintegration of the nation is the sedition charge invoked.
Let us analyse the second point that there should be no upper limit for freedom of expression and that no thought or speech or action amounts to sedition or anti-nationalism. If someone incites people about balkanisation of the nation, should the union government and law and order agencies remain silent spectators on the assumption that freedom of expression absolves everyone who incites people to bring about the disintegration of the nation? It is said that speech alone cannot amount to sedition, unless it is followed by action. Is it not the duty of law and order agencies to forestall people from spreading fissiparous agenda? Even the speech, let alone action, that calls for the disintegration of the nation has to be nipped in the bud. Why? C N Annadurai demanded Dravidasthan in the 1950s (Although he asked for a separate country for all the four southern states of Tamil Nadu, undivided Andhra Pradesh, Kerala and Karnataka, none of the other three states supported such a move) to fan Tamil nationalist feelings against the Indian nationalist feelings of the then Congress. Although Annadurai and the DMK dumped the demand in the early 1960s and become part and parcel of the national stream, some embers are left in Tamil Nadu politics today due to the seeds sown by DK and DMK by words — and not by actions — till the 1960s, and resurfaces here and there in frivolous contexts. This is a clear example of why any speech that calls for the disintegration of the nation has to be nipped in the bud. Those who argue that only waging a war in the form of the attacks on Parliament or on Mumbai demand sedition charges, either have not realised the detrimental effect of speech that calls for disintegration of the nation, or deliberately ignore it.
Moreover, any condoning of fissiparous speech in the name of freedom of expression has no place in the democratic setup, where Indians rule themselves by electing their representatives every five years at all the three layers of government, and where there are no restrictions on people to gain opportunities to do so, across the length and breadth of India. Comparing what our freedom fighters did against the British for which they faced sedition charges and the slogans of JNU students calling for disintegration of the nation as the same is the most nonsensical reasoning. Our freedom fighters fought against the British for self-rule, whereas in republic India, we rule ourselves through a democratic process. There is no bar on anyone in India to change the public discourse by presenting their ideology before people and coming to power and changing the course of governance and policy, all within the larger ambit of our Constitution. In addition, people have opportunities to enter the bureaucracy and bring change in the system within the power that has been entrusted to the respective positions. In this context, the sedition charges against someone in present India have to be viewed more seriously than the way these charges were applied during the British rule.
Successive union governments, irrespective of the ruling dispensation, have been earmarking more funds for the development of regions such as Jammu & Kashmir, North Eastern States and districts affected by Left-wing extremism in order to help these places achieve faster progress and thereby join the national mainstream. This has to be seen in the context that to construct every unit of social and physical infrastructure, the government has to spend much more on these states than for the rest of India due to the unfavourable conditions there. In this backdrop, why then do liberals openly support slogans calling for the balkanisation of India on the pretext of freedom of speech? In spite of all their efforts to stop the Modi juggernaut, NDA came to power, with the BJP gaining a simple majority. The wounds are so deep for some of these liberals that they lost the sanity to distinguish between the ruling dispensation and the nation. The anger and frustration has been such that liberals are equating the call for balkanisation of the nation with an attack on the ruling dispensation. The sooner these liberals realise that opposing the nation is not the same as opposing the NDA government and Modi, the better it will be for these people and the nation as a whole.
The author holds a Doctorate in Public Systems from Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad.