Correction: An earlier version of this post erroneously described AP Shah as the former Chief Justice of India. Shah was the former Chief Justice of the Delhi High Court. The error is regretted.
In a powerful speech delivered on the occasion of the annual MN Roy Memorial Lecture in New Delhi, former Chief Justice of the Delhi High Court, AP Shah, condemned the rise of ultra-nationalism in contemporary India.
In an hour-long speech, the full text of which can be read here, Shah condemned a range of recent judicial orders and government injunctions that infringe on the personal lives and choices of individuals to enforce a monolithic notion of patriotism.
From the clothes people are allowed to wear to what they are permitted to eat to the proper manner of showing respect to the national anthem — these rules prescribe a list of dos and don'ts to citizens. Those who fail to abide by the government's norms instantly incur the label of "anti-national". Shah spoke, loud and clear, against these oppressive strategies of the State to curb the freedom to dissent from the status quo.
Today, sadly, in this country I love, if anyone holds a view that is different from the government's acceptable view, they are immediately dubbed as anti-national or desh-drohi
Drawing on the life and work of MN Roy, a Leftist thinker who opposed fascism in the 1930s and 40s, Shah made an emphatic remark about the government's crackdown on those who dare to hold a view contrary to it. "Unfortunately, our institutions of learning are under attack today and there is a concerted attempt to destroy any independent thought," he said. "Today, sadly, in this country I love, if anyone holds a view that is different from the government's acceptable view, they are immediately dubbed as anti-national or desh-drohi."
In the course of his lecture, he touched on a range of incidents that turned the country upside down in the last few months. From sedition charges brought against students of Jawaharlal Nehru University who raised "anti-national" slogans to the spate of censorship of movies like Lipstick Under My Burkha, Udta Punjab and Phillauri to the trolling of 21-year-old Gurmehar Kaur on social media, he covered a range of contemporary concerns.
Clarifying that sloganeering never amounted to sedition, unless followed by an incitement to violence or overthrow the government, Shah reiterated a series of arguments, which have been made by a number of eminent intellectuals like historian Romila Thapar and lawyer AG Noorani already. Constitutional experts like Fali S Nariman spoke against the misuse of the sedition law at the peak of the students' unrest in 2016. More recently, another pioneer of jurisprudence, Soli Sorabjee, also made similar arguments in the course of an interview with India Today.
Referring to his own life, Shah mentioned that his maternal grandfather was the president of the Hindu Mahasabha in the 1940s, adding that "the first literature that I ever encountered in my school days was Sarvarkar's writings", which found resonance in Adolf Hitler's policies in Nazi Germany. Drawing on the writings of Roy and Tagore, Shah went on to explain their counterpoint to Savarkar's aggressive and lop-sided nationalism. He also explained the distinction between democracy and majoritarianism: while the former is interested in bestowing equal rights on all individuals, the latter merely upholds the will of the majority over the minority, thereby going against the first principles of equality.
Shah is known to speak his mind on contentious matters in the past. In an interview with News 18, he had called the hanging of both Afzal Guru and Yakub Memon as being politically motivated, carried out under circumstances when there was not enough time to consider a mercy petition. While such plain speak may not be possible for sitting judges, India needs other members of its judiciary to speak up against the might of the State, which continues to impose draconian policies — the anti-Romeo squad in Uttar Pradesh, for instance — with impunity.
Shah ended the lecture on a soaring note, quoting a short poem by Faiz Ahmed Faiz: "Speak, for your lips are free/Speak, your tongue is still yours/Your upright body is yours/Speak, your life is still yours."
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