Close to 100 years ago, a nefarious Indian agitator considered it a privilege to be accused of sedition. “Section 124 A, under which I am happily charged, is perhaps the prince among the political sections of the Indian Penal Code designed to suppress the liberty of the citizen,” he matter-of-factly informed the judge before whom he had been hauled up.
The law, enacted in 1870, was intended to penalise those who “excited feelings of disaffection to the government”. The culprit who found himself in the dock 50-odd years later cheekily informed the court that affection was incapable of being “manufactured or regulated by law”.
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, who was sentenced in 1922 to six years in prison, would have found it hard to envisage such a patently colonial law surviving in an independent India. Jawaharlal Nehru considered sedition an “obnoxious and objectionable” charge, yet the law remains on the statute book, perhaps even more open to abuse than before now that the ideological heirs of Gandhi’s assassins are calling the shots.
Although this month’s sordid sequence of events at the New Delhi university named after India’s first prime minister is part of a pattern whereby accusations of being "anti-national" are flung with abandon at students, academics, writers and other intellectuals who challenge the Hindutva narrative, the impression of a watershed moment has emerged.
The arrest of Jawaharlal Nehru University Students' Union president Kanhaiya Kumar has indeed sparked widespread outrage, not just at JNU or in New Delhi but across India; however, it’s far from clear whether it might constitute a meaningful turning point.
A video that purportedly showed Kumar calling for azadi in the context of Kashmir was revealed soon enough to have been doctored, but not before a few TV channels had aired it without verifying its authenticity. Apparently unedited footage of his speech shows him calling for freedom from poverty, bloodshed and ignorance, which some people would no doubt find offensive, but would be unlikely to stand up in court as evidence of sedition, no matter how loosely it is interpreted.
Perhaps the lawyers and goons who assaulted Kumar and his sympathisers in the court premises decided to take the law into their own hands because they realised the charges were ridiculous in legal terms. Their perverse frenzy was reminiscent of the behaviour of their Pakistani counterparts who took up cudgels on behalf of the Pakistani's Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer’s murderer.
There are plenty of other unfortunate parallels, too. The Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, the right-wing student organisation instrumental in provoking the JNU kerfuffle, is exerting on campuses pernicious pressures of the kind associated with the Islami Jamiat-i-Talaba, particularly during the Zia-ul-Haq years. "Anti-national" and "unpatriotic" have long been familiar terms of abuse for anyone who has had the temerity to question the "ideology of Pakistan". The penalty for raising the issue of Baloch rights can range from intimidation to an arbitrary death sentence.
In India, a legislator of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, after viciously assaulting a Communist Party of India leader outside the Delhi courtroom where Kumar was being arraigned, was quoted as saying: “If you ask me, there is nothing wrong with beating up or even killing someone shouting slogans in favour of Pakistan.”
Across the border, a similarly sordid mentality was manifested recently in the arrest of Umar Daraz, a young villager, for raising an Indian flag in a completely apolitical context, to celebrate a plucky innings down under by Virat Kohli. The preposterous charge against him, under Section 123A of the Pakistan Penal Code, relates to undermining the nation’s sovereignty.
Meanwhile, it has been decreed that massive versions of the Indian tricolour must be displayed in all centrally funded universities. It would be fine, of course, if the fluttering flags symbolised bastions of academic freedom and open debate. There is good reason to suspect, though, that the primary intent is intimidatory, reflecting a lack of both maturity and national self-confidence.
Once this week’s water crisis in Delhi – brought on by agitating Jats in neighbouring Haryana who are determined to claim the advantages of being declared a backward caste – is sorted out, minds are likely to be focused once more on bigger questions related to the diminution of Indian democracy. Resistance, obviously, is not futile, and it is not entirely inconceivable that the current convulsions could ultimately make way for salutary consequences.
There is plenty of scope for mounting unpleasantness in the short term, however, with free spirits such as Kanhaiya Kumar and Arundhati Roy bearing its brunt. Let us hope no one proposes setting up a Lok Sabha un-Indian activities committee. It’s difficult, though, to ignore the abiding irony that those among the political class and the so-called intelligentsia who purport to detest India’s western neighbour the most, are in the forefront of recasting their nation in the Pakistani mould.
This article was first published on Dawn.