The diminution of democracy
The law, enacted in 1870, was intended to penalize those who “excited feelings of disaffection to the government.” The culprit who found himself in the dock in 50-odd years later cheekily informed the court that affection was incapable of being “manufactured or regulated by law.”
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, who was sentenced in 1922 to six years in prison, would have found it hard to envisage such a patently colonial law surviving in an independent India. Jawaharlal Nehru considered sedition an “obnoxious and objectionable” charge, yet the law remains on the statute book, perhaps even more open to abuse than before now that the ideological heirs of Gandhi’s assassins are calling the shots.
Although this month’s sordid sequence of events at the New Delhi university named after India’s first prime minister is part of a pattern whereby accusations of being “anti-national” are flung with abandon at students, academics, writers and other intellectuals who challenge the Hindutva narrative, the impression of a watershed moment has emerged.
The arrest of Jawaharlal Nehru University Student Union (JNUSU) president Kanhaiya Kumar has indeed sparked widespread outrage, not just at JNU or in New Delhi but across India, but it’s far from clear whether it might constitute a meaningful turning point.
A video that purportedly showed Kumar calling for “azadi” (freedom) in the context of Kashmir was revealed soon enough to have been doctored, but not before a few TV channels had aired it without verifying its authenticity. Apparently unedited footage of his speech shows him calling for freedom from poverty, bloodshed and ignorance, which some people would no doubt find offensive, but would be unlikely to stand up in court as evidence of sedition, no matter how loosely it is interpreted.
Perhaps the lawyers and goons who assaulted Kumar and his sympathizers in the court premises decided to take the law into their own hands because they realized the charges were ridiculous in legal terms. Their perverse frenzy was reminiscent of the behavior of their Pakistani counterparts.
In India, a legislator of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), after viciously assaulting a Communist Party of India leader outside the Delhi courtroom where Kumar was being arraigned, was quoted as saying: “If you ask me, there is nothing wrong with beating up or even killing someone shouting slogans in favor of Pakistan.” Across the border, a similarly sordid mentality was manifested recently in the arrest of Umar Daraz, a young villager, for raising an Indian flag in a completely apolitical context, to celebrate a plucky innings down under by Virat Kohli. The preposterous charge against him, under Section-123 A of the Pakistan Penal Code, relates to undermining the nation’s sovereignty.
Meanwhile, it has been decreed that massive versions of the Indian tricolor must be displayed in all centrally funded universities. It would be fine, of course, if the fluttering flags symbolized bastions of academic freedom and open debate. There is good reason to suspect, though, that the primary intent is intimidatory, reflecting a lack of both maturity and national self-confidence.
Once this week’s water crisis in Delhi — brought on by agitating Jats in neighboring Haryana who are determined to claim the advantages of being declared a backward caste — is sorted out, minds are likely to be focused once more on bigger questions related to the diminution of Indian democracy. Resistance, obviously, is not futile, and it is not entirely inconceivable that the current convulsions could ultimately make way for salutary consequences.
There is plenty of scope for mounting unpleasantness in the short term, however, with free spirits such as Kanhaiya Kumar and Arundhati Roy bearing its brunt. Let us hope no one proposes setting up a Lok Sabha Un-Indian Activities Committee.
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