Of heroes and sedition

 Published in: The Daily Star on March 2, 2016
Of heroes and sedition

Two days ago, Ashis Nandy, the political psychologist, social theorist, critic, and a trained clinical psychologist, at a SAARC literary festival in Delhi, sighed and said, “Their today is our future; their present is our tomorrow”, and lamented about how the East has followed the West and has suffered in the process. Next, in a rather subdued tone, he blamed Harry S. Truman for having introduced us to the term ‘development’ seventy years ago. What Nandy didn’t cover was what was happening at JNU, only twelve kilometres away from the India International Centre, where we were. What he didn’t mention was that there was massive unrest being reported in the media, while students arrested for sedition were complaining of being beaten by lawyers.

Kanhaiya Kumar had been arrested for sedition, a well-defined and codified phrase in Section 124A of the Penal Code, incidentally taught to us by the British 145 years ago. Kanhaiya, a PhD scholar pursuing African Studies at JNU, has also been president of the Jawaharlal Nehru University Students’ Union ever since 2015. On February 12, 2016, he was arrested and charged with “sedition” along with some students who were rallying against the 2013 hanging of Mohammed Afzal Guru, a Kashmiri separatist convicted over the 2001 Indian Parliament attack. Apart from the controversial footage that a private channel has aired in Delhi, the police have no evidence of Kanhaiya having himself chanted any anti-state slogan, and therefore, defaming the country. He was attacked when he was produced at the Patiala House Court on the February 15, and was repeatedly beaten up by three lawyers, as per their own admission to media on February 22.

The story hasn’t ended there. Following the court’s directive, a case was registered against nine people, including Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi, Delhi Chief Minister ArvindKejriwal, and CPI(M) General Secretary Sitaram Yechury Rahul. All three of them also face “sedition” charges. Sedition in this sub -continent has a history of being slapped on glorious sons of the soil. After being introduced in the Indian soil in 1870, the first major case of sedition was the Lokmanya Tilak’s case (Queen Empress v. Bal Gangadhar Tilak (1897) ILR 22BOM). During his lifetime, among other political cases, Bala Gangadhar Tilak was tried for sedition three times by the British-India government, first in 1897, second in 1909, and finally, in 1916. On March 10, 1922, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was arrested on charges of sedition by British officials in Bombay and was sentenced to six years in prison for protesting the British colonial government in India. Gandhi served two years. Right afterwards, in the summer of 1930, the Raj had decided to grant the city of Calcutta a limited form of self-administration, thereby requiring a mayor to run it. In 1929, Jatindra Mohan Sen Gupta was elected mayor of Calcutta, and served in that position from April 10, 1929 to April 29, 1930, but was soon after booked for “sedition” following his speech at a public meeting in Rangoon, for having provoked people against the government and opposing the India–Burma separation. The next elected mayor was Shubhas Chandra Bose, who was elected on August 22, 1930, and was able to enter office only after his release from prison on September 23 in the same year, only to be thrown back into prison, again under “sedition” charges, after some months on January 26, 1931, for having organised a procession to celebrate “Independence Day”.

Unfortunately, the Indian government has decided to make Kanhaiya a hero at a wrong time. A country that knows best that nationalism is not about loyalty to the government, but to the state alone, should have known better. A country’s history that often cites the names of Tilak, Bose and Gandhi, and shames past cases of sedition, should have done better than to use taxpayers’ money to track anti-national slogans across JNU and other universities with a twisted stick called sedition in its hand. That’s a stick the Brits themselves have given up on, in spite of having brought in the toughest variety of sedition when they ruled India. Yet we go on and know little to differentiate between dissent and sedition.

Today, most unfortunately, debates are not won because of the strength of arguments, but are often won because of threats and ad hominem attacks, and other lowbrow devices. Today, most unfortunately, while we often claim to be decolonised, we ourselves emerge as the “other” within our own boundary. Today, most unfortunately, and most ironically, we often expose our own vulnerabilities and weaknesses by imposing irrationalities of power within our discourse.

In about a stretch of three kilometres in Kolkata, I spotted nineteen billboards of Mamata Banerjee, glorifying her success in education, industry, health, and finally pitching for the Bidhan Sabha elections scheduled to be held soon. I asked the driver (often drivers of a city are the best reflectors of the real political scene) about how she was actually doing. He burst into a pro-Mamata monologue for about half hour and tried his very best to convince me about how every morning “his” leader with her own jharu (broom) supervises the daily cleaning chores of the city. I pretended to believe him. But his next message shocked me the most. He said, “With all that’s happening in JNU, maybe didi will offer Kanhaiya and Khalid a ticket from Trinamool next?” Even a driver, with the level of education that he has had, understood how politicians handpick ordinary people from ordinary landscapes and turn them into heroes. But then Kanhaiya and Khalid aren’t ordinary. How can Kanhaiya be ordinary when he phrases the government’s unproductive time in the parliament as “Teen sal ka talk time baki hay” (three years of remaining talk time), and how can Umar Khalid with his sanskritised Hindi be just “ordinary”? Therefore, for India, it was perhaps best to slam “sedition” on these “ordinary” men. Perhaps that is why we, in our own land, lost our bloggers and publishers; perhaps that is why free thinkers are hunted in the name of sedition; and perhaps that is how “development” happens.

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