On the even-ing of April 7, 1775, the British man of letters Samuel Johnson made a rather prophetic assertion. He said and I quote: “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.” The statement was about the false use of the term “patriotism” by William Pitt, the first Earl of Chatham (the patriot minister) and his supporters. The context is apt to describe the trigger happy response of the Central government to l’affaire Jawaharlal Nehru University.
While the slogans raised by a bunch of students to mark the third anniversary of the implementation of capital punishment awarded to Afzal Guru are certainly undesirable, by no stretch of the law do they constitute criminality, much less sedition. It has been over 11 days since the said incident took place and the Centre is still scrambling for evidence to substantiate the sedition charge that was levelled against Kanhaiya Kumar, the president of the JNU students’ union, who continues to be wrongfully incarcerated.
For the law on sedition as laid down by the Supreme Court in a catena of judgments from Kehar Singh to Shreya Singhal is very clear. Allegedly seditious speech and expression may be punished only if the speech is an incitement to violence or public disorder. In fact, in the latter case that struck down Section 66A of the Information Technology Act, 2000, the Supreme Court even drew a distinction between “advocacy and incitement”.
In the JNU matter there was no encouragement to violence or even provocation to create disorder. That begs a fundamental question as to why did the Centre resort to the use of the most draconian section in Indian criminal law — a provision that none other than Mahatma Gandhi described as the “prince among the political sections of the Indian Penal Code designed to suppress the liberty of the citizen”.
For if the pulp patriotism of the Bharatiya Janata Party was indeed something more than chicanery, then they should break their alliance with the Akali Dal in Punjab as for the current chief minister Parkash Singh Badal’s political party was routinely involved in burning of the Indian Constitution in the early ’80s.
In fact, on February 27, 1984, Mr Badal personally led a band of protesters who burnt copies of Article 25(2)(b) of the Indian Constitution outside Parliament — an offence far more heinous than raising anti-India slogans. Similarly, in Assam, the party that the BJP was negotiating to tie up with, the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), had on August 19, burnt copies of the 119th Constitutional Amendment Bill to protest against the Land Boundary Agreement with Bangladesh that Mr Modi now claims as a feather in his cap. Earlier, during the Assam agitation in the early ’80s, the All Assam Students Union, the progenitor of the AGP, was equally creative in its protests.
Similarly, the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), with whom the BJP was running an alliance government in J&K till yesterday had, as late as March 3, 2015, in a written statement declared: “PDP has always maintained that late Afzal Guru’s hanging was travesty of justice and constitutional requirements and process was not followed in hanging him out of turn… PDP stands by the demand for return of his (Guru’s) mortal remains, and the party promises to follow vigorously for the return of the mortal remains. We believe that the resolution brought by Engineer Rashid to seek clemency for late Afzal Guru was justified and should have been adopted by the house at that time.”
It is typical of the BJP to have one standard in Delhi and another in Srinagar. However, what is far more portentous is the flimflam of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance government. While it has no hesitation in sending it’s police into women’s hostels in JNU, ostensibly searching for anti-national elements, it is equally blasé about announcing half-baked accords like the one with the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isak-Muivah) in August 2015. The NSCN(IM) has been waging a war against the Indian state for decades. If the government has such a huge problem with slogans shouted by some students, how is it so nonchalant about negotiating with armed insurgents?
However, what took the cake was home minister Rajnath Singh saying that there was a Lashkar-e-Tayyaba (LeT) link to the incident in the JNU. It was based upon certain tweets emanating from the account of Hafiz Saeed, the godfather of all Punjab-based terrorist groups in Pakistan, that have a purely India focus. Saeed later disowned the tweets as well as the account itself.
Having served in the United Progressive Alliance government, I am well aware that the government has the capacity to track social media. It can not be the case that officials would not have informed Mr Singh about the veracity of the account that he decided to use to point a finger at non-state actors in Pakistan.
Given all these apparent contradictions, why is it that the government tried to frame the entire issue in the nationalist qua traitor paradigm. First and foremost, the progenitor of the BJP, the Rashtriya Swa-yamsevak Sangh, has a visceral hatred for the JNU. Many RSS and BJP leaders have used the choicest epithets to describe the university with one “eminence” of the RSS labelling it as the Centre of intellectual terrorism in a TV debate with me on February 18. If the RSS has its way, it would shut the university down, lock stock and barrel and throw the keys into the Bay of Bengal.
Second, the Centre believes that by taking the low road of jingoism it can label every censure of the government not as anti-BJP or anti-NDA, but as anti-national. Anybody with even a nodding acquaintance with the consolidation of Nazism is Germany between 1933 and 1936 after Adolf Hitler seized power would see the same pattern playing itself out in India over the past 20 months.
For the first thing that the thugs of the Waffen-SS did was to go after every writer, teacher, playwright, filmmaker, and any other intellectual, that it considered hostile to the ideological mould they wanted to cast Germany in. The third, and perhaps the most important, is that the RSS-BJP feels that this is the one chance that they have got after 67 years of Independence to change the fundamental narrative of India.
Since 1947, there have been two competing visions of India. The liberal, progressive, pluralist idea of India as articulated and implemented by the founding fathers of the Indian Constitution that and majoritarian, theocratic and obscurantist worldview that seeks to convert India into a monolithic “Hindu Rashtra” conveniently ignoring the intrinsic diversity of the Hindu faith.
The appointment of fellow travellers to institutions, like the Central Board of Film Certification, the Film and Televisi-on Institute of India, the Indian Council of Histori-cal Research, despite stiff opposition from the stakeholders and the hounding of a young student to suicide on the campus of Hyderabad University are but manifestations of this insidious design.
However, the intrinsic lack of sophistication in implementing a devious project of transforming the basis of a nation exposes their ineptitude as nothing else does, making them objects of ridicule if not mirth. For example, the knee-jerk diktat by the “highly academically qualified” human resource development minister Smriti Irani in response to the developments in JNU.
Ms Irani directed that the national flag must be flown in all Central universities as if it did not earlier. Perhaps it would have been better if the government had advised the RSS to unfurl the Tricolour once in a while at their headquarters in Nagpur or in their offices across India.
In November 2013, at the International Film Festival of India in Goa, I had cautioned the creative community that the ominous drumbeats of fascism are growing louder and a great evil would soon stalk our land. They would squeeze the liberal spaces in the country, stamp out the right to dissent and crush the alternative narrative by misusing the instrumentalities of the state.
The prophecy is unfortunately coming true. For when you sow the wind you reap the whirlwind and stopping this pulp patriotism from consuming India would require a lot of good men and women to step up to the plate.