The polemical tsunami unleashed by the arrest on sedition charges of Kanhaiya Kumar, a leader of the All India Students Federation (AISF), the student wing of Communist Party of India (CPI) and current JNU students union president, compels us to revisit the existential dilemma between free speech and sedition. Additionally, it is imperative to unravel in this scenario the ugly political undertones that have aggravated this ostensibly legal conundrum to give it a false aura of a grave national crisis.
Freedom of speech, the basic and inalienable right of an individual to express their thoughts unfettered and unafraid is the sine qua non of a democracy -- its defining trait and crowning glory. Take away freedom of speech and democracy becomes a hollow shell and is reduced to authoritarianism.
'Bharat ki Barbadi' is a vicious hate rant that unequivocally threatens the violent disintegration of India, fulfilling the Supreme Court criterion of 'incitement to violence.'
However, can free speech be a boundless integer? The answer is a resounding and categorical no. Free speech is not akin to a 'license to kill'; it is not a free for all wherein anything and everything goes. Free speech needs to be tempered by guiding tenets to make it a constructive catalyst lest it deteriorate into an unbridled, toxic and destructive expression.
Where we draw that line in the sand between free speech and sedition can be a challenging proposition, but it has to be drawn, nevertheless. However, in our zeal to curb sedition we must be careful not to dilute the efficacy or reach of free speech.
"Whoever, by words, either spoken or written, or by signs, or by visible representation, or otherwise, brings or attempts to bring into hatred or contempt, or excites or attempts to excite disaffection towards, the Government established by law in India, shall be punished with imprisonment for life, to which fine may be added, or with imprisonment which may extend to three years, to which fine may be added, or with fine."
To allay the ambiguity in the original version, the Supreme Court of India in the of case of Kedar Nath vs. State of Bihar (1962) laid down a more tangible criterion: it stated that a person can be charged with sedition only if there is incitement to violence in his speech or writing or an intention to create disorder.
Tell me, which Constitution anywhere in the world will not see declaring war on a country as sedition?
Now let us vet the following slogans that were raised at a JNU protest honouring Afzal Guru (convicted by the courts of India of being complicit in the 2001 terrorist attack on the Indian Parliament) using the stipulation laid down by the Supreme Court.
- Bharat Tere Tukde Honge. InshaAllah InshaAllah
- "Bharat ki Barbadi tak Kashmir ki azadi tak jung karenge jung karenge
- Bharat ke solah tukrade honge InshaAllah Insa Allah
- Kitne Afzal maroge har ghar se Afzal niklega
- Afzal hi hatya nahi sahenge nahi sahenge, halla bol halla bol, ladkar lenge Azadi, cheen kar lenge Azadi, Azadi Azadi, Pakistan Zindabad, Pakistan Zindabad
First the validity of the tapes showing students raising these slogans on the JNU campus has not been disputed. What is in question is whether the JNU students' union president Kanhaiya Kumar actually mouthed these slogans. An investigation is under way and I will withhold judgement on that. Either way Kanhaiya Kumar by virtue of being the student president cannot absolve himself of moral responsibility for these happenings under his watch.
Let us objectively dissect these phrases. The first slogan - "Bharat Tere Tukde Honge. InshaAllah InshaAllah"-- calls for the breaking of India into a thousand pieces. It cannot be waved off as an innocuous desire for the peaceful dissolution of India. It is certainly not a Gandhian call for a non-violent struggle. It is a vicious hate rant that unequivocally threatens the violent disintegration of India, fulfilling the Supreme Court criterion of 'incitement to violence.'
The second sentence -- "Bharat ki Barbadi tak Kashmir ki azadi tak jung karenge jung karenge -- is a blatant battle cry for a war of destruction against India. Tell me, which Constitution anywhere in the world will not see declaring war on a country as sedition?
This is not a fair debate about free speech and sedition -- it is a part of the broader anti-Modi anti-BJP political campaign; a faltering illegitimate witch hunt...
By no stretch of imagination or any degree of logic can this be classified as political dissent. This is sedition plain and simple as per the SC criteria and is totally indefensible. And that is how it should be treated, period. No country or people with any self-esteem can tolerate such treasonous outpourings. It is an unpardonable crime not against the BJP or Hindutva but against the 1.2 billion people who have reposed faith in the democratic republic of India. And if this government did not act it would be guilty of dereliction of duty; its action must be seen as the brief of the democratically elected standard bearers of the nation sworn to defend its integrity and sovereignty.
Nevertheless, our so-called intellectuals have gone into overdrive and filled newspaper column after column with articles decrying the government's action. Strangely enough, none of these supercilious pontifications address directly the specific slogans that are at the heart of this controversy. Instead, they artfully skirt this issue and lambast the government for displaying a 'rabid' form of nationalism without proffering any logical explanations.
The venom and hate that fills these columns suggest that this is not a fair debate about free speech and sedition -- it is a part of the broader anti-Modi anti-BJP political campaign; a faltering illegitimate witch hunt that has desperation written all over it in the face of umpteen unsuccessful previous attempts to unbalance the current government.
What message are we conveying to young impressionable minds when we celebrate the likes of Afzal Guru?
In an Indian express article "An act of tyranny" that borders on hysteria and reeks of ridiculous hyperbole, the normally sane and intellectual Pratap Bhanu Mehta claims:
"...we are living under a government that is both rabidly malign and politically incompetent. It is using nationalism to crush constitutional patriotism, legal tyranny to crush dissent, political power to settle petty scores, and administrative power to destroy institutions......."
Mr Mehta does not know what he is talking about, or maybe he was too young at the time of Emergency. After all, all the things he enumerates have already happened: hundreds of people were jailed, courts were neutered, national institutions were rendered defunct and newspapers ran blank editorials.
Finally in an irony of ironies, Pratap Bhanu Mehta turns the tables on the government and concludes:
"Nothing that the students did poses nearly as much threat to India, as the subversion of freedom and judgement this government represents. The honourable ministers should realise that if this is a debate about nationalism, it is they, rather than JNU, who should be in the dock. They have threatened democracy; that is the most anti-national of all acts."
Give me a break, Mr Mehta. If rabid calls for the violent destruction of the democratic republic of India topped off with a salutation to Pakistan are not anti-national, then what is?
Further when the likes of celebrity journalists like Rajdeep Sardesai claim that "I am proud to be anti-national" , they are not engaging in a serious debate. Mr Sardesai is enacting a parody which reduces the level of debate to that of a hysterical and emotional exchange bereft of facts and reason.
These events have a far-reaching and deleterious effect ... students will be convinced that violence rather than the ballot box is the modus operandi for social change.
Apart from the legal repercussion of these slogans they have practical and logistic implications.
What message are we conveying to young impressionable minds when we celebrate the likes of Afzal Guru, convicted by the courts of being an accomplice to the terrorist attack on the citadel of our democracy, instead of paying homage to the brave and courageous Neerja Bhanot who laid down her life saving passengers from terrorists on the hijacked plane Pan Am flight 73?
What is the impact on society wherein the role model for students are terrorists like Yakub Memon (again convicted by the courts after a fair trial ) and not soldiers like Lance-Naik Hanumanthappa who died while guarding the frontiers of our nation in the icy heights of Siachen?
These events have a far-reaching and deleterious effect on our nation. Young people will grow up eulogizing villains as heroes; honourable and impartial verdicts handed out by our courts will be treated as motivated and discarded, thus enfeebling the democratic intuitions of our nation; students will be convinced that violence rather than the ballot box is the modus operandi for social change.
This is a fight to salvage the soul of India from charlatans masquerading as democrats and reset the paradigm of right and wrong in India.
This is why we need to stand up to these corrupt and corrosive shenanigans which have made a mockery of our nation, our democracy and our sovereignty -- wherein ethnic cleansing from Kashmir is an accepted modality of dissent, wherein terrorist attacks from across the border find justification by mainstream intellectuals citing majoritarianism, and wherein violent Maoists are celebrated as Gandhians with guns. This is a fight to salvage the soul of India from charlatans masquerading as democrats and reset the paradigm of right and wrong in India.
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