Justice Pratibha Rani grants bail to Kanhaiya Kumar:

Whenever some infection is spread in a limb, effort is made to cure the same by giving antibiotics orally and if that does not work, by following second line of treatment. Sometimes it may require surgical intervention also. However, if the infection results in infecting the limb to the extent that it becomes gangrene, amputation is the only treatment.

Reading the Delhi High Court’s bail order for Kanhaiya Kumar, president of the Jawaharlal Nehru Students’ Union, I was reminded of a slogan, or more accurately a tension, I encountered whilst reporting the worker action at the Maruti factory in Manesar.

The unrest of 2011, I wrote at the time, pivoted on the discord between a management wedded to a particular idea of efficiency and productivity, and workers bored by the regimentation of factory life.

“Indiscipline is not tolerated,” said Suzuki Chief Osamu Suzuki at a meeting with Maruti Udyog Kamgar Union representatives. “Authoritarianism will not be endured,” said an anonymous worker in the Faridabad Mazdoor Samachar, a workers broadsheet.

Reporting on the student protests at JNU last month, and the government’s response, I found similar parallels in the confrontation between an authoritarian – and patronising – establishment, and unruly students in the midst of forging the politics of their generation.

Power of slogans

This discord makes visible an idea of a harmonious society of “obedient students”, “disciplined workers,” and “patriotic citizens”, all harnessed to a productive economy. This harmony is disrupted when Honda workers from Manesar march in solidarity with JNU students, or the children of factory workers, anganwadi workers, farmers, and artisans, study at university rather than enrolling in a vocational training institute. Suddenly, thoughts picked up on the shop floor, at the village clinic, on a train from Begusarai, on a bus from Zakir Nagar, are transmitted to the classroom.

Perhaps this is the infection, the gangrene, that Justice Pratibha Rani fears: a slogan, chanted in the streets of Srinagar as a matter of routine, finds an opening at a university campus in New Delhi. Freed from the usual suspects, unmoored from the routine skirmishes, deaths, and encounters, along the Line of Control, the slogan floats through a university corridor – distracting rows of disciplined students from their academic pursuits.

A slogan’s explosive power, it seems, is not just about what is shouted – but rather where it appears, and who takes up the call. This realisation offers us an opportunity, long sought, to think through this troubling question of “Freedom of Expression.”

Free speech

What is the frustration that writers feel at moments when “Freedom of Expression” is under threat? Perhaps, it is a frustration borne of the sudden inability to repeat oneself.

Let me explain: occasionally, a reconfiguration of the state form produces a strange, quickened time when the foundations of a world seem to be under assault. The change is brisk and unsettling, and writers, long accustomed to set modes of confrontation with power, are unable to immediately produce the intense and rigorous thought these times demand.

So we adopt a defensive, conservative stance of trying to protect what we have: of fighting for the right to continue to say what we have always said. Power sees this and moves quickly to declare such speech seditious, anti-national, unpatriotic. We then fall further into this trap, like this current moment, where the day is not far when some well-meaning writer will argue, in all earnestness, that it is patriotic to be seditious.

But restrictions on speech only apply to speech that has been uttered. If the Man stops you from saying something today, just say something else tomorrow.

Judges, government officials, policemen and soldiers, often speak of rebellion as contagion. This is not a coincidence – this is one of Michel Foucault’s signal insights. In Discipline and Punish, he writes:

Behind the disciplinary mechanisms can be read the haunting memory of “contagions”, of the plague, of rebellions, crimes, vagabondage, desertions, people who appear and disappear, live and die in disorder.

New meaning

Who can predict the carrier of this contagion?

Perhaps the infection metastasizes when words, objects, signs and symbols suddenly take on meanings that the establishment never imagined they would: in Bengal in 1857, the British believed, the message was a chapati, delivered by hand from village to village; in the Bhumkal of 1910 in Bastar, Nandini Sundar writes in Sovereigns and Subalterns, “messages consisted of mango boughs, a lump of earth, chilies and arrows”; in Iran in 1979, Ryszard Kapuscinski writes, children ran through the streets waving sheets of white paper dipped in blood; in Oklahoma in 2015, pastors preached in hoodies to mark the death of Trayvon Martin.

“Everybody knows about Mississippi, God damn,” sings Nina Simone, without ever telling us exactly what it is. But why should she, when everybody knows?

A modest suggestion: some evenings, don a hoodie and walk through the dusty lanes of your neighbourhood. Gaze at the mango trees, each bough rustling with rebellion; peer at the green chilies conspiring on the sabziwalla’s handcart, eat a mutinous chapatti at the local dhaba, and hear the lumps of earth crunching beneath your chappals sing “freedom, freedom”.