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Mainstream, VOL LIV No 12 New Delhi March 12, 2016

In the Name of Nationalism

Sunday 13 March 2016

by Imtiaz Ahmad Ansari

“The more laws and order are made prominent, the more thieves and robbers there will be.”
— Lao Tzu 

Kanhaiya Kumar, the JNUSU President, is finally out on bail. The controversy over the anti-national sloganeering in Jawaharlal Nehru University, one of the finest centres of higher learning in the country, needs some introspection and reflection. Introspection more for those who have ‘declared’ themselves to be the only patriots of the country and reflection for the rest of us.

The charge of being anti-national on some of the students of the university was based on a video clip which was widely publicised by the frenzy media, without even thinking about the consequences of their malicious design. The irresponsible media left no stone unturned in portraying Kanhaiya and JNU as anti-national. However, the prosecution failed to establish that Kanhaiya actually raised anti-national slogans. Not only that, some members of the political class have even compared girl students of the university to prostitutes and held that the university was a den of immoral activities which is against the ‘Indian culture’. Such irresponsible and uncalled for comments by the political class need a course-correction. Despite all the evil designs to malign the university and paint it with the brush of anti-nationalism, JNU will emerge strong because it has in its DNA the capacity to resist. Resist any force which is designed to suppress the voice of sanity. The release of Kanhaiya is only the beginning.

Sedition and Democracy

The charge of sedition has been made against the students. The law of sedition was introduced in 1870 in the Indian Penal Code, ten years after the formulation of the IPC. Section 124A of the IPC, which deals with sedition, was introduced by the British Government because they wanted to muzzle the voice of Indians and prevent them from revolt, which they had just witnessed during 1857 and the increasing threat from the Wahabi activities. Section 124A defines sedition as “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”. The British Government introduced the Section 124A in order to control and imprison intellectuals, freedom fighters and the press.

In pre-independent India the two well-known cases of sedition were against Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Mahatma Gandhi. The law of sedition is the heritage of a feudal mentality. Such draconian laws run counter to the spirit of individual liberty and freedom of expression. It is interesting to note that even the United Kingdom from which we borrowed it, has repealed the Act in 2009. History is witness that there are grey areas in the implementation of the law of sedition. It has been used by the state, whether colonial or independent India, to control dissenting voices.

Originally, the law was meant for a colony, not for a free, democratically elected country such as today’s India. The dichotomy between the ruler and the ruled was well demarcated in the colonial period. So, the law of sedition was an instrument in the hands of the ruler, the British imperialists, to control the ruled, the Indians.

The sedition law, although attenuated to some extent in independent India, is still intact in the statute books. It is an archaic legislation and a relic of British rule. What is the functionality and rationality of the law of sedition in independent India? In the historic Kedar Nath judgment, the Supreme Court of India in 1962, although upholding the constitutionality of the sedition law, curtailed its meaning and restricted its application only to acts which are intended to create disorder, problem of law and order or incitement to violence.

In democratic post-independent India, sedition charges have been used by the state from time to time. The latest National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data shows that total 47 cases of sedition were registered in 2014. The sedition law runs counter to the freedom of speech and expression that constitute the foundation of a democratic polity. Legal opinions may vary on the constitutionality of sedition, but the freedom to think, speak and act must be the cherished goal of any progressive society.

When Emile Durkheim, the noted French sociologist, offered his theory of division of labour, he said that primitive societies are mainly based on mechanical solidarity, a solidarity of resemblance. On the other hand, modern, advanced societies are characterised by organic solidarity, which is based on differentiation. In societies based on mechanical solidarity, repressive laws are common and the purpose of punishment is to satisfy the common consciousness. Repressive laws are replaced by restitutive law or cooperative law in societies based on organic solidarity. Restitutive laws are meant not to punish the individual but to bring about more cooperation among individuals. The constitutional law is one form of cooperative legislation. Although we have entered the Durkheimian stage of society based on organic solidarity, we still carry our fondness with repressive laws in the form of sedition. This is nothing more than a blot on the democratic foundations of our society.

Manufactured Nationalism

Nationalism, along with religion, are the two potent sources of repression which have been used by people and societies to the level of madness. If we flip over the pages of history, all the major violent conflicts in the world were either fought in the name of religion or nationalism. Compared to religion, however, nationalism as an ideology is of much recent origin. As an ideology, it emerged in the late 18th and early 19th century. In India, Indian nationalism is synonymous with the freedom struggle against the British imperialists. However, along with the Indian nationalist movement, a parallel movement in the form of Hindu nationalism also started. But the two movements were polar opposites. The Hindu brand of nationalism is antithetical to the idea of India which the leaders of the Indian freedom movement envisaged. The spirit of Indian nationalism found its body when the country adopted the Constitution in 1950, a document which strives to create a secular, socialist and democratic republic. The Constitution laid the foundation to create an equal, accommodative and inclusive society where different cultures and belief systems fuse together in order to strengthen the democratic polity.

Hindu nationalism, or Hindutva, is an invented, manufactured ideology. It represents a majorita-rian, militant, chauvinistic and cultural form of nationalism which is exclusive and non-accommo-dative in nature. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the ideological fountainhead of the Hindu nationalist movement, founded in 1925 in Nagpur by K. B Hedgewar, strives to create a Hindu Rashtra. It is an ethno-nationalist organisation. For the RSS, Hinduism is India’s national identity and Indian culture is Hindu culture. M. S. Golwalkar, the longest serving sarsanghchalak of the RSS, in his book, Bunch of Thoughts, has identified Muslims, Christians and Communists as the most dangerous internal threats to India. If we look at the last two years rule by the Narendra Modi-led NDA Government at the Centre, a systematic malicious and violent campaign has been pursued by the RSS and its affiliates against them and other marginal groups. Ghar Wapsi, love jihad, the beef controversy, attack on Christians’ life and property and the assassination of rationalists in different parts of the country offer testimony to their operational design. In Hindu Rashtra, minorities can only live as second-class citizens making a mockery of the constitutional guarantee of equality before the law to all its citizens. Distortion of history, saffronisation of institutions of higher learning (ICHR, FTII to name a few) and now the politics over Rohith Vemula and anti-national portrayal of JNU are some examples which give us enough clue about the direction in which they want to take India. If merely articulation of an idea and delivery of a speech can be ground for sedition, then many mainstream organisations and institutions may be labelled as seditious and charged with sedition. It is time to debate the law of sedition as aggressive and unwarranted nationalism may unleash the demon within us.


India is a country with innumerable forms of diversity which have existed for centuries. The kind of nationalism advocated by the Hindu Right undermines these diversities. Creating an Orwellian state is not in the interests of the country. It will be a curse on the nation. What does nationalism mean when people are dying of hunger and poverty? What does nationalism mean when a handful of people decide what one should eat? What does nationalism mean when it does not gives us the freedom to think? India is going through a crisis. It is a disappointing situation but certainly not depressing. India should strive to bridge the economic and social gulfs and not widen those gulfs by creating unrest and instability in society. If India can win freedom from British imperialism, India certainly will defeat the fringe fascist elements. Freedom of speech is the touchstone of democracy. We must all agree to disagree. This is what the JNU movement is all about.

The author is a Visiting Faculty of Sociology at Amity University, Noida, Uttar Pradesh. He can be reached at: imtiaz.ahmad01@gmail.com

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