Anyone for a ‘pro-national’?

Today, we are presented with a ubiquitous ‘anti-national-for-all-seasons’.
A statue of Dr BR Ambedkar. (Photo| PTI)
A statue of Dr BR Ambedkar. (Photo| PTI)

'Anti-national’ is a much sought-after word today. It has been with us almost from the birth of the republic. Dr BR Ambedkar used it in his concluding speech in the Constituent Assembly on November 25, 1949. He said, “The castes are anti-national. In the first place because they bring about separation in social life. They are anti-national also because they generate jealousy and antipathy between caste and caste.” He is very clear about what, in the Indian context, is anti-national.

Later, the word took its place in the Constitution during Emergency through the notorious Article 31D introduced via Section 5 of the 42nd Constitution (Amendment Act) 1976. Indira Gandhi used the Article to wipe the Constitution clean of fundamental rights during Emergency. It also defined ‘anti-national’ activity as any action taken with the intention to (1) bring about cession or secession of a part of the territory of India; (2) disclaim, question, threaten or disrupt the sovereignty and integrity or the security or the unity of India; (3) overthrow by force the GoI; (4) create internal disturbances or disrupt public services and (5) threaten or disrupt the harmony between different religious, racial, regional groups or castes or communities. 

To be fair to Indira, it was not a bad attempt, considering the nefarious intentions behind it. What she used it for proved more deadly to the nation than to her targets. Though Article 31D was repealed, the phrase found a permanent place in the mainstream political discourse.Today ‘anti-national’ is a catchphrase of the governing classes, many editors, anchors and reporters across the media, leaders and spokespersons of various Hindutva groups, and even the police and the secret services — perhaps, also the lower echelons of the judiciary.

It has come a long way from Ambedkar and Indira. In terms of criminal investigation procedure, it seems to translate mainly into Section 124A of the IPC which deals with sedition, and the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) which is concerned with terrorism. The first is part of the colonial legacy and the second, of the Congress legacy. The simplicity of Section 124A takes one’s breath away: the bare text is just 71 words. Interestingly, the word ‘sedition’ does not appear anywhere in it. It was used by the British to arrest freedom fighters including Gandhi, Tilak, and Lajpat Rai.

Gandhi called the Section ‘the prince among the political sections of the IPC designed to suppress the liberty of the citizen.’ Nehru called it ‘objectionable and obnoxious’ but it was his government that re-armed Section 124A through the first Amendment to the Constitution in 1951. The ink on the Constitution was hardly dry when the Amendment established curbs on ‘abuse’ of freedom of speech and of the press, bestowing upon Section 124A pride of place as the tool best suited, in Gandhi’s earlier words, ‘to suppress the liberty of the citizen.’  

The UAPA was enacted under Indira. It had no pretensions of simplicity. It concretised into law the provisions of the 16th Amendment, effected in 1963 under Nehru, empowering ‘Parliament to impose, by law, reasonable restrictions in the interests of the sovereignty and integrity of India on the (i) freedom of speech and expression; (ii) right to assemble peacefully and without arms; and right to form associations or unions’. The UAPA also spelt out in elaborate detail the nature of a ‘terrorist act’. It is interesting that in both the Amendments that abridged fundamental rights in India, the hand of fate belonged to Nehru. It was left to his daughter to remove fundamental rights altogether from the Constitution — at least for a while.

Today, we are presented with a ubiquitous ‘anti-national-for-all-seasons’. The traditional terrorist and seditionist described in the law book and a lot more are re-packaged into the new ‘anti-national’ whose footprint is discovered everywhere — from the university to the media; from cinema to literature; from the urban to the rural; and the stand-alone activist. We hear of many arrests. Though the new ‘anti-national’ has come to wield so much power, there appears to be no icon of a ‘pro-national’ to counter it; no shining model to hold up before the citizenry.

But doesn’t the nation need a ‘pro-national’ as well?  How long can the ‘anti-national’ remain the principal deity, the touchstone for nationalism? Can that old workhorse, the patriot, stand up to the ‘anti-national’?  It seems doubtful because patriotism has suffered so much abuse at the hands of politics in post-independence India that its soul is nearly comatose. Also, a patriot, by definition, is one who loves her/his country so much that she/he is ready to die fighting for it. That is a tall order when one can comfortably earn patriotic badge by the degree of frenzy with which one waves the Tricolour at IPL. 

Where patriotism is a by-product of rhetoric and fetish, the patriot model may not help to build a meaningful ‘pro-national’ model. Perhaps such a ‘pro-national’ is akin to the idea of a patriot projected by the man who imagined India to begin with, Gandhi. He said, “For me patriotism is the same as humanity. I am patriotic because I am human and humane.” 

Perhaps, Ambedkar too was imagining a ‘pro-national’ when he said, “I do not want that our loyalty as Indians should be in the slightest way affected by any competitive loyalty whether that loyalty arises out of our religion, out of our culture or out of our language. I want all people to be Indians first, Indians last and nothing else but Indians.” Perhaps, they were just dreamers. But, perhaps, they still make it possible for Indians to say: ‘I’ve a dream!’ — a beautiful dream of an India of patriots who are human and humane and are nothing else but Indians.   

(Paul Zachariah is an award-winning fiction writer)

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