Some months ago, Barkha Dutt was in Mumbai to record a “We The People” show about the execution of 1993 serial blasts convict Yakub Memon. At one point nearing the end, Dutt offered the mike to a young and clearly Muslim woman in the audience. This woman spoke briefly about her sense that justice is selectively applied in this country, and the insecurity she felt as a result.
How many people agreed with her, I don’t know. But her words seemed to ruffle a few feathers in the room. As I was leaving, a man came up and said, pointing to the woman: “How can she talk like that? These people held a big funeral for Memon! How is that supposed to make the rest of us feel about them? Isn’t that anti-national?”
His anguish, his discomfort over what had happened at Memon’s funeral, was clearly genuine. Therefore I was sure he would remember, as many of us do, another funeral in this city in late 2012.
Referring to the man who had died then, Justice BN Srikrishna’s inquiry report into the 1992-'93 massacres in this city said that he was “like a veteran General [who] commanded his loyal Shiv Sainiks to retaliate by organised attacks against Muslims.” During those same massacres, the man who had died wrote several editorials in his party mouthpiece making many statements about his fellow-Indians. One such statement was this:
“Pakistan need not cross the border and attack India. 25 crore Muslims in India will stage an armed insurrection. They form one of Pakistan’s seven atomic bombs.”
These lines effectively labelled an entire section of Indians traitors by virtue of their religion. So consider them in the light of Section 153B of the Indian Penal Code, which says:
“Whoever, by words either spoken or written, makes any imputation that any class of people cannot, by reason of their being members of any religious group, bear true faith and allegiance to the Constitution of India... shall be punished with imprisonment up to three years or fine or both.”
Did that editorial violate Section 153B?
For this man’s funeral procession, perhaps two million people poured onto the streets, dwarfing any funeral – or any event, really – before or since. For his cremation, he was wrapped in the Indian flag and given a gun salute. The spot where his pyre stood remains as a memorial to him; the government of Maharashtra is considering allotting land for a bigger memorial to him, and is actually building it using public money. In other words, millions of Indians this man called traitorous will actually contribute towards a memorial to him. How is all this supposed to make the rest of us feel? A photographer who covered the event found an answer in his father’s reaction:
“I told him he got state honours and his face sank… As I was about to leave, he asked, still unsure if I had told him correctly, ‘They gave him a gun salute?’”
Points to ponder
At Dutt’s show, in the space of a half-minute or so, I tried to tell the anguished man all this. I’m not sure he fully grasped what I was getting at, but he did look at me in some astonishment. I’m not sure why.
“Anti-national” is an empty, meaningless and yet destructive label to fling about. And as we all know, it has been flung about a great deal in recent days and weeks, especially on two well-known university campuses.
Merely saying it is meaningless, though, may not persuade anyone. After all, recent days and weeks also suggest that plenty of us are falling over ourselves and each other to call people anti-national. So perhaps it’s worth asking some questions instead:
- If you distribute swords to a crowd that then slaughters several dozen Indians, is that distribution anti-national?
- If such a sword-distributor is subsequently appointed as a minister, is that appointment anti-national?
- If you become rich beyond any known source of income because you dip liberally into public money, is that dipping anti-national?
- If you lie in performing your constitutional and judicial duties, is such lying anti-national? If you applaud such lying, is such applause anti-national?
- If you pronounce that you will not be bound by the verdict of this country’s courts, is that pronouncement anti-national?
- If you label one in every six Indians anti-national because of their religion, is such labelling anti-national? In fact, if you label anyone anti-national, is such labelling anti-national?
- If you beat up journalists doing their jobs, is such beating anti-national?
I could go on, of course. But perhaps the point is clear. If you are really intent on painting some people as anti-national for some reason, you should be aware that others will find equally good reason, using irrefutable logic, to paint your heroes – maybe even you – as anti-national too.
At a meeting I attended in the wake of the JNU fracas, a burly lawyer rose from his seat. Given what some lawyers had been up to in Delhi, this might have set off a ripple of unease in the room. But this man walked to the front and mounted a passionate defence of JNU and free speech. Among other things, he suggested that the true test of a commitment to free speech comes when the speech offends – even, or especially, to the extent that you are tempted to lash out with that label “anti-national”.
“So I want to know,” he asked, “exactly what is anti-national about shouting ‘Pakistan zindabad’.”
Worth a thought.