NEW DELHI: Section 124 A of the Indian Penal Code is Independent India’s greatest weapon. Our independence was hard won and the state has always believed in routinely parading its disapproving, dissenting citizenry through the legal process, so as to reform them and make them patriotic. Now one cannot really question a state, with an aim to reform. The case in question is that of Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, a prestigious institution wherein seditious slogans were heard on the evening of the 9th of February. The government promptly ordered its police to book them under the same. The critics, students, sympathizers and ‘anti-nationals’ criticized the action which came even before the university, an autonomous institution, could complete its own inquiry. From Professors to Members of Parliament, people have been seeing this as a way of turning India into a police state or worse still attempts to foist the government’s own ideology on dissenters.

Therefore, before the naysayers and detractors, who routinely question the government of the day, due the increase of violent clashes under it, get into the act, let me say that I understand the government’s dilemma. It is, after all, using Section 124 A, for reformative and not punitive purposes. It merely is a remedial measure to bring those back to the path who have forgotten Bharata Mata (Mother India). All this even when it knows completely well that the Supreme Court has thrown out many such previous charges and in its wisdom has stipulated that one be tried for ‘seditious’ acts only if he or she tries to incite violence. From Kedarnath vs the State of Bihar (1962) to Binayak Sen (2011), the supreme court’s unchanging views on the use of the act from the IPC has been self evident. But Mr. Rajnath Singh says they were seditious, and Mr. Rajnath Singh is an honourable man.

Speaking to the Indian Parliament in 1952, India’s then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had said “If, however, the people of Kashmir do not wish to remain with us, let them go by all means. We will not keep them against their will, however painful it may be to us. I want to stress that it is only the people of Kashmir who can decide the future of Kashmir.” A fine collection of his views on Kashmir has collated in a recent article by Arundhati Roy. But I understand that both of them are anti-nationals and one should be harsh on them when reading such things. “Nationalism is a great menace”, Rabindranath Tagore had said in 1917. “It is the particular thing which for years has been at the bottom of India’s trouble. And inasmuch as we have been ruled and dominated by a nation that is strictly political in its attitude, we have tried to develop within ourselves, despite our inheritance from the past, a belief in our eventual political destiny”. Well, a man who says such things would have almost certainly been anti-national.

Friends, Indians, countrymen, I know that the anti-nationals at JNU have crossed the line and they need to repay the state for their subsidized education. Believe me, I do. But for those who don’t let me give them a clearer picture of what had transpired on the evening of the 9th of February. A cultural evening was organized by a group of students, to commemorate the hanging of Afzal Guru, a man sent to the gallows for being complicit in the attack on the Indian Parliament. Due permission was taken for the same. It must be mentioned here that debates on Afzal Guru’s hanging had taken place previously as well. Debates have ranged from his role in the attacks to whether a case built up primarily on circumstantial evidence, could lead to the death penalty. The judgment spoke of the need to satisfy the collective conscience, of a nation and society through his hanging, which fuelled further debates.

The evening began with Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the student’s wing of the ruling party - Bharatiya Janata Party, the custodians of Indian culture, taking offence at this. My heart goes out to ABVP, since they are often misunderstood as lumpens, when they are really god-fearing, nation-loving idealists. They immediately presented their case to the JNU administration, asking for the permission to be withdrawn, apprehensive of it vitiating the atmosphere in the campus. The perceived fear was born out of previous instances of vandalism from obvious quarters, one can presume.

The administration immediately revoked the permission previously given. But since this was in the heart of the capital, in an institution where all sorts of views had always been allowed a space, and especially where poor ABVP had very little student support, it decided to call the media and the police. Given that it enjoys a clout much beyond its actual strength owing to state patronage, the police and certain sections of the media promptly reached the university, much before anything untoward had happened. The evening began with slogans of Afzal Guru’s immortalization and Freedom for Kashmir, but none on India or Pakistan as eye witness accounts concur. It was then that there were attempts to disrupt the gathering by ABVP, now that the police and the media had arrived. A melee ensued, elected representatives of the JNU students union rushed to the spot to prevent an escalation and it was in this scenario that slogans calling for the disintegration of India, hailing Pakistan were raised.

Since then the nationalist media of our country, and thank god for their nationalism, went into overdrive mode. In debate after debate the representatives from the student community were put up on a media trial, for challenging the nation that is Bharata. My beloved country was being threatened, and its proud sons in the form of ABVP and the fourth estate had taken it upon themselves to prevent what they feared, mere words from JNU could achieve. Many videos have been doing the rounds since. A particular video has been used by the anti-nationals to show how the event was orchestrated by ABVP all along. Photos are doing the rounds on social media, which makes it evident according to many university students and researchers, that the ones raising anti-India slogans were actually ABVP activists. But to no avail.

The media and the police had already accepted the videos authenticity without question. And rightly so, because our sovereignty and internal security were at stake. These students were challenging the might of the state and wanted to emulate Afzal Guru after all. Kanhaiya Kumar, the elected President of JNU’s student union was promptly arrested, after a police meeting with the administration had led to the latter furnishing names and contacts of all the students supposedly involved. In their search for the other accused the police indiscriminately ransacked both boys’ and girls’ hostels, without a lady officer in their ranks, as some accounts suggest. But that shouldn’t matter because the nation comes first. Students, researchers and professors in solidarity formed human chains, led protest marches. However, they could only raise their voice within the confines of the campus because outside the gates waited angry mobs of fervent nationalists, who kept coming after periodic intervals. Serves them right, I say.

One nationalist protester on the 15th, while speaking to a reporter of a national media house, said that despite the government having acquired their lands to hand it over to the university, their wards could never secure admission at JNU. Why then, he went on to say, should they tolerate such anti-nationals. On the 15th while waiting for Kanhaiya Kumar to be brought to the Patiala House Court in Delhi, his friends and teachers were mercilessly beaten up by nationalistic lawyers, chanting nationalistic slogans. They even threatened the journalists, who had dared to record it on camera. Some anti-national media houses did air it though.

Is it then a problem of JNU or the seditious few? That is for the courts to decide. But what about the hounding of students in autonomous institutions, without so much as an inquiry? What about the beating up of teachers and students in courts of law by lawyers themselves? What about Rohith Vemula, a student of the Hyderabad Central University, whose class and caste status makes it easy for us to forget his institutional murder? Was it all done to get the government out of the spot it had got itself into after Rohith Vemula’s case came to the fore? Many were then asking for a case to be made against the union minister on the grounds of abetment to suicide and the SC/ST act.

Every country has a history of dealing with dissent. The possibility of a Buddhist council at Pataliputra to silence heresy or the Kaushambi, Sarnath, Sanchi edict espousing the empire’s vision of preventing schism within the Buddhist samgha might be suggestive of how Asoka dealt with dissent. Even the state under Akbar had its way of dealing with dissenters. History is replete with examples, such as the hounding of Shaikh Mubarak, the execution of Mirza Isfahani or Mir Yaqub Kashmiri, or the relocation of the remains of Murtaza Shirazi’s, a Shiite, from its proximity to Khusrau’s tomb. But Asoka had also favoured the Ajivikas and would deviate from Buddhist norms were the role of a cakravartin necessitated it. Akbar had also envisioned and practised sulh-i kul (absolute peace) which in turn informed the policies of state patronage. He had also allowed conversions to any religion for his subjects and organized interreligious debates. The trope of the embattled nation and the deification of a Desha Mata or Bharata Mata come from a more recent past, as reciprocal identity formation during colonial times. Unfortunately in India, the demarcation between the government and the state is not discernible, with state policies never being divorced from what the ruling parties’ urgencies may otherwise be.

The geo-political terrain we coexist in is one of complexities. Here it is often realpolitik which may guide our belief system. Jinnah too had started off as a modern liberal. Later realizing that without his adoption of the religious idiom he would not be able to carve out an alternative politics for himself, he became, at least ostensibly, a devout Muslim. Taking sides on social media on any contentious issue today, one could draw a barrage of criticism, mostly abusive. If the views happen to be something which nation-loving social media users disagree with then there is no saving the individual. The vociferous hyper-nationalist mob is the first to take up cudgels for any cause. But the question still remains. Shouldn’t there be a defense of reason?

Liberal democracies in the West, are a product of more than four centuries of historical development, and it was most certainly a western import in India. Even the resolution on Fundamental Rights, in the Karachi resolution, adopted by the Congress in its 1931 session, was definitely framed with an eye on the West. Why then should we accept it? We are nationalist, aren’t we? Ilango Adigal certainly had no clue of seditious sentiments when he had written about a Kannagi having charged the Pandyan King with miscarriage of Justice, a travesty which was to her so great that her curse had burnt Madurai, the capital city of the Pandyas. But I would like to reiterate, that I am an AVOWED NATIONALIST. I LOVE MY COUNTRY AND WE NEED THE LAW ON SEDITION.

(The writer is a research scholar at the Centre For Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University.)

(Photo courtesy Anmol Ratan)

(Editor’s note: This is a satirical piece, in case that missed anyone).