As I write these words, a young woman is sitting behind tall walls in a prison somewhere in Karnataka, shadowed with the stigma of two among the gravest crimes in India’s statute books. The first is of these is sedition,the second is of fostering hatred between communities. If found guilty and convicted of the first, she could be sentenced to spend her life in jail.

Just two words brought this misfortune upon her young shoulders. These were “Pakistan zindabad”. Literally “Long Live Pakistan.”

Nineteen-year-old Amulya Leona Noronha stirred a tumult during a protest against amendments to India’s citizenship law, organised by the Hindu-Muslim-Sikh-Issai Federation at Freedom Park in Bangalore on February 20. It was here that she shouted the slogan “Pakistan zindabad” which plunged her into mayhem, as several men tried to drag her away. But before the microphone was snatched from her, she also managed to shout “Hindustan zindabad” or “Long Live India”.

No one allowed her, then or later, to explain why she wished that Pakistan live long. Soon after she uttered these two words, she was arrested. Her father condemned her actions, declaring, “What she said is wrong. She was joined by some Muslims and wasn’t listening to me!” Some men, said to be members of an extremist Hindutva organization, gathered that night outside her home and stoned it.

The chief minister of Karnataka also took notice of the young woman’s slogan. He claimed evidence that the young woman had Maoist links, and that her refrain wishing Pakistan well werepart of a conspiracy to disturb peace and harmony in the state. He also said that her father wanted to break her bones. Asaduddin Owaisi, chief of the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen, who was on the stage and among the men who tried to silence her, later condemned her roundly,pronouncing: “We, in no way, support our enemy nation Pakistan.” The magistrate before who she was presented, refused her bail, and instead sent her for 14 days into judicial custody.

Demonstrators attend a protest against a new citizenship law, outside the Jamia Millia Islamia university in New Delhi. Credit: Reuters

The first crime that she is charged with – sedition, under Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code – was used by colonial rulers against freedom fighters like Mahatma Gandhi and Lokmanya Tilak. It can punish with life in jail any person who “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”.

Among those recently charged with under this colonial provision are the mother and teacher of primary school children in Bidar for a writing and performing a play critical of the recent amendments of the Citizenship Amendment Act. Amulya Noronha is also charged under Section 153A of the Indian Penal Code, for the alleged crime of creating hatred against communities.

I confess to being utterly confused by too many mysteries at play here. Maybe I am missing something, but how could a young person declaring publicly that she wishes Pakistan well be seen to incite hatred against any community in any way? Her message, after all, was not of hate against anyone. How indeed could the call “Pakistan Zindabad” be construed as an attempt to cause hatred, contempt or disaffection against the government of India to attract the grave charge of sedition?

Moreover, if Karnataka Chief Minister Yediyurappa was correct in his overnight discovery of her Maoist links, I cannot figure out why a Maoist would hail Pakistan? Her father was angry with her because she did not listen to him: but he should know that this is a “crime” that any young people would be guilty of. His other complaint was that she was “joined by some Muslims”. But the Muslims who “joined” her on the stage only tried to seize her mic and silence her voice as she wished Pakistan well.

Tagore’s message

These mysteries become even more perplexing when I find that Union ministers who openly incite crowds to shoot at protesters or dub people of certain identities “termites” are not charged with either creating hatred or of sedition.

In our collective haste to charge Amulya Noronha with sedition and hate – outraged by what we feel is evidence of her regrettable wanting in love for her country – we have chastened her with a spell behind prison walls. Would we have profited by listening first to what she wanted to say? In a Facebook post a week before her public sloganeering, Amulya Noronha had written, “Whatever country may be – long live for all the countries!” She had added. “Long live India! Long live Pakistan! Long live Bangladesh! Long live Sri Lanka! Long live Nepal! Long live Afghanistan! Long live China! Long live Bhutan!”

Among those who would surely have approved of the universal humanism that Amulya Noronha seemed to be attempting to uphold – although with such disastrous outcomes for herself – is Rabindranath Tagore. Tagore was vigorously opposed to the idea of the nation and nationalism, rejecting these variously in his writings as artificially created, “organised self-interest”, “least human and least spiritual”, and even “a cruel epidemic of evil that is sweeping over human world of the present age, eating into its moral vitality”. He was convinced that a naturally-built human society is much more humane in essence than the so-called artificially created nationhood.

Ashis Nandy tells us that Tagore was a patriot but not a nationalist. “Patriotism means love for one’s country…a certain emotional attachment to place of one’s birth, the place where you have grown up, place which frames your earliest memories. Nationalism is different. Nationalism is not a sentiment. It is an ideology. It is based on the idea of that nation…Because nation and nationalism presume that you homogenise the population. And give them a theory of love of the country which also specified enemies and friends, allies and detractors.”

If we had paid heed to what Amulya Noronha was saying, perhaps it was the rejection of the idea that love for one’s country requires you to hate specified enemies.

In Mahatma Gandhi’s worldview, as well, there was no place for enemies. In his last fast, two weeks before he was assassinated, one of his demands was to pay Pakistan its promised share of funds, without which it stood in danger of going bankrupt. Pakistan is not an enemy, he insisted. We maybe estranged, but we are still siblings.

An installation in the shape of the map of India at Delhi's Shaheen Bagh. Credit: Sanjay Dubey

I don’t know when Amulya Noronha will be released from prison, and (if and) when she will be freed from the charges of sedition and hate. I don’t know if a time will come when politicians, the police, courts and the denizens of social media will listen to her rather than judge her.

If judge her we must, then the most we can judge is that perhaps she was brash and a little unwise in the way she communicated her convictions. But then what is the point of being young if you cannot on occasion have the privilege to be unwise and brash, especially if you believe in something which you are convinced is very important, which you want the world to think about?

We are passing through a luminous moment in the journey of our republic when our young people are trying to teach us new ways to engage with our country and our world. They are telling us to shed hatred and bigotry. Can we just stop and listen?

I feel a catch in my heart to think of this young woman in prison for trying to tell us simply that loving your country does not require you to hate any other.

I don’t know if and when she will ever read this article. But if she does, I offer her a small gift. This is my clumsy translation of an exceptional Punjabi poem by Manjeet Sumal which I recently discovered.

The title of the poem is Pakistan Zindabad, two words which our establishment has deemed to be both seditious and hateful.

“What is the harm in saying ‘Pakistan Zindabad’?
Why should I say ‘Pakistan Murdabad’ – Death to Pakistan?
Zindabad means ‘may you live, may you remain happy, may you thrive
May you prosper, may you enjoy peace, may you enjoy good fortune always’
Pakistan at one time was part of us
On that side is left behind our land, our cities, our people
Our history, our shared culture, the memories of our ancestors
Why should these not be Zindabad?Why should these not live long?
Why should I wish for their destruction?
They are our neighbours. Tell me who wishes for the death of one’s neighbours?
We can wish for the death of terrorism in Pakistan
We can curse with Murdabad the political leaders, the system which supports and fosters terrorism
But we cannot wish death to the entire people, the country, the citizens of Pakistan
They are not to blame in any way
Their artistes, singers, cricketers, actors are not to blame
Why should we curse themwith Murdabad?
If our neighbours prosper, we will prosper
Do we want them to raise the slogan ‘Hindustan Murdabad’ against us?
Would we be happy if they say that the people of India should die, should be reduced to a land of corpses?
We ourselves sometimes raise the slogans – Punjab government Murdabad! Indian government Murdabad!
Never Punjab Murdabad! India Murdabad!
If we wish death, it is to the system
But when it comes to Pakistan, why do we forget this?
That its system should perish, not its people?
If we seek their death, is this not evidence of the bankruptcy of our minds, our ignorance?
Patriotism should not be a device to hijack our minds
Those who truly love their country love all the earth
Their love does not halt at any border
Their love does not wish that people live on this side of the border and die on the other side
May India live long!
May Pakistan live long!
May Bangladesh live long!
May Sri Lanka live long!
May China live long!
May Canada, America, England, Dubai, Qatar, Australia, Europe, Africa, Asia, all live long!
May people who live everywhere thrive, prosper, find happiness!|
Both India and Pakistan have lived long! They are living long! They will continue to live long far into the future!
Pakistan Zindabad!”  

So, Amulya Leona Naronha, a rousing call from me to you – Pakistan zindabad!