By Anandita Ghosh and Saranga Ugalmugle:
On the 23rd of February, People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), National Alliance of People’s Movements (NAPM) and other progressive organisations held an open meeting on the repression of educational institutions and journalists and the misuse of the sedition law. To register their protest against the events in Jawaharlal Nehru University and Patiala Court recently, they issued a public statement and appeal.
The open meeting included speeches by Dr. Nitish Nawsagaray (law professor), Mr. Dilip Padgaonkar (senior journalist), Mr. Suhas Palshikar (political theorist), Dr. Manisha Gupte (feminist activist) and Dr. Ramesh Awasthi (President, PUCL Maharashtra). Each speaker explored different aspects of nationalism and the need of the hour.
Dr. Nitish Nawsagaray, a Dalit rights activist and a lecturer at ILS Law College, presented a strong case for the need of repealing the law on sedition from the Indian Penal Code. Sec 124 A of the IPC defines the law of sedition which states that anyone who brings or attempts to bring into hatred or contempt or excites or attempts to excite disaffection towards the government by words spoken or written or by signs or by visible representation or otherwise is guilty of the offence of sedition. The definition does not leave out of its purview any possible mode of self-expression simply by using the words “or otherwise.” The punishment for the offence of sedition is life imprisonment but lesser punishment can also be awarded.
Sedition was not a part of the original Indian Penal Code (IPC) enacted in 1860 and was introduced in 1870. Navsagaray referred to two cases of sedition filed by the British government, one against Bal Gangadhar Tilak and the other against Mahatma Gandhi to show how this law has been used as a political tool by the governments in power to curb voices of dissent. Pandit Nehru himself called sedition an “obnoxious” piece of legislation and mentioned the need of removing it from our statute books.
Despite this, we continue to have an archaic law of sedition, a relic of the colonial rulers. Being a modern democracy, India cannot continue to criminalise dissent, and thus Navsagaray stated the urgent need to repeal the law on sedition from the statute books!
Dilip Padgaonkar, a distinguished journalist, brought out the realities of the media. He said that one has to realise and understand that there is pressure on the media – political, ideological, as well as commercial. Given the background and especially the way things are today, objective reporting is difficult to come by, but even more difficult to find is fair comment; nuances are lost. Padgaonkar pointed out the one-way communication strategy of the government – no press conferences, rehearsed interviews. The PM tweets to wish people on birthdays, but there is silence when a man gets lynched on suspicion of consuming beef; that is a communication strategy. While at an official level there is no communication, on social media, there are reactions.
Referring to the manner in which JNU videos were doctored and publicised, Padgaokar said that the Indian media is a planter’s paradise – investigative journalism is not up to the mark, and therefore, it is extremely easy to plant material. The media no longer reflects reality but also guides and shapes it. When twitter has a comment linking JNU to Lashkar e Taiba, despite coming from a fake account, the damage is already done. “That night the nation wanted to know and the nation decided that the tweet was right!” said Padgaonkar.
Commenting on the present government, Padgaonkar said, “It was obvious to me right from May 2014, the current government will be double faced. One face will speak about the modernisation of the economy and the modernisation of the armed forces.” He went on to add, “The second face is to ensure that in education and culture there is no progression but regression, and the agenda for education, the agenda for culture was straightforward, no ambiguity. We have a certain line that must be imposed. That line is – I define what culture is; I define what Indian culture is; I define what nationalism is; but most of all, I define what anti-nationalism is.” The right-wing in India feels threatened by pluralism. Any criticism is attributed to a big conspiracy.
However, he says there is hope – the staggering incompetence of the right, the lack of strong intellectuals and creative minds. He ended by saying that the only way to rise to the vicious challenge of the present is to become ‘Constitutionalist Patriots’ – where patriotism stems from the Constitution, where patriotism means to believe in pluralism, diversity, and non-violent means to achieve ends. He said he loves his nation but when cornered and forced to choose, he would stand with the citizens of the country rather than the institutions of the country.
Suhas Palishkar, another eminent journalist and professor of political science, spoke about the interference of the state in educational institutions. The JNU incident, he said, highlights the issue of autonomy of educational institutions and state interference in the same. “We have stopped looking at universities as a space which fosters intellectual growth and curiosity but have instead made them into governmental departments,” said Palshikar. He raised concern over how educational institutions have been reduced to industries which manufacture graduates and technicians to meet some statistical demands!
Palshikar, while speaking of nationalism, questioned what amounts to nationalism. Is ‘nationalism’ the love for the state imposed on the people at gunpoint or under pressure of arbitrary state law? Should it be out of love for the people, society and their concerns? Is ‘nationalism’ ownership over a piece of land or the quest to work for the voiceless people of the society? JNU, HCU (Hyderabad Central University), etc. are not isolated events; they raise pertinent questions about where this nation is headed? What is our idea of India? It is time to contemplate the relationship between democracy, which asks questions, and nationalism, which insists on love for the nation.
A feminist activist and member of PUCL, Manisha Gupte spoke of the alarming similarities between Germany during the rise and reign of Hitler and present day India and the need to stand up to the present situation. While Hitler and Goebbels harped on the past glory of Germany, the vision of an undivided Germany, and who was a true German, the present government, much along the same lines, talks of a glorious past, an undivided India, and defines who is a nationalist and who is not. And the manner in which cultural nationalism is being shaped is dangerous. The Bharatiya Janata Party is openly violent and discriminatory. One only has to look at the interviews of the lawyers who brag about beating Kanhaiya; there are those who talk of petrol bombs and even hanging, and these are the people who are labelled nationalists. On the other hand, people who debate whether capital punishment should be abolished or not become anti-nationals.
Much like Germany’s SS and SA troupes, we have groups like the RSS and Bajrang Dal. These groups work to establish fear on the roads, in everyday life; and then there are the lone wolf attacks –Kalburgi, Dabholkar. They attacked individuals whose houses and minds were open for all. The nation is headed in a scary direction. When Vajpayee was in power, we were critical of him. But compared to Advani, who subsequently became dominant, Vajpayee seemed moderate. Then came Modi and everyone before him seemed moderate. The fear is, tomorrow we will have someone who will make even Modi seem moderate.
Ms. Gupte concluded with a version Niemoller’s poem, which has various editions:
“First they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for the Catholics, the communists, trade unionists, the feminists, but I did
nothing as I had nothing to do with politics.
When they came for me, there was no one left to speak out.”
She ended by saying, “We and there are thousands like us who will not allow such a day to come; so if we have to go, let’s go out with the first lot and not wait to be the last person standing.”
Dr. Ramesh Awasthi, the president of PUCL Maharashtra, commented on the nature of present-day nationalism. He pointed out that present-day nationalism was a modern form of tribal territorialism. Akin to tribes that define boundaries and kill invaders on sight, nationalism is being shaped not only along physical boundaries but also ideological and cultural boundaries. This idea of protection seeps down to the state level and further to communities and localities. There is rising jingoism on various grounds; one example being linguistic jingoism. There is bound to be unrest if such uniformity is forced on people. India is plural, and the manner in which nationalism is conceptualised has to be inclusive, plural, and sensitive to diversities. If diversities are not taken care of and there is majority jingoism, will the marginalised feel at home?
Any sort of jingoism breaks the county. The limited conceptualisation of nationalism is damaging the social fabric of the nation. He emphasised that it is crucial that even as we stand up to the present challenge, we also think of the ongoing and future process of healing.
It was heartening to see the number of young people who attended this open meeting. The speakers put forth diverse perspectives and encouraged thinking. And as Dr. Awasthi pointed out, the process of healing will be a long-drawn-out process. But, however murky the present may seem, as the speakers said, there is hope; and hopeful we must stay as we fight on!