Lawrence Liang, lawyer, scholar and co-founder of the Bangalore Alternative law forum, delivered a lecture at the JNU teach-in titled "What the Nation really needs to know" on Sunday. He addressed the "relationship between the right to dissent, freedom of speech and expression, and sedition".
Liang began his lecture by pointing at the common representation of kings and leaders seated on horses. These sculptures often show the leader precariously placed on the horse, and though the horse has always been the companion of power, it is also susceptible to a tiny insect called the gadfly, which gets into the horse's ears and is capable of disorienting the mount completely.
Comparing free speech to the gadfly, Liang quotes from Plato's Apology, where Socrates is described as the gadfly speaking to the "dimwitted state". Centuries later, Liang says, you have another gadfly in the anti-colonial movement, a gentleman named Mahatma Gandhi.
When charged with sedition under section 124A, the same section that the JNU students have been charged with, Gandhi had said, "Affection cannot be manufactured or be regulated by the law; one should be free to give full expression to their disaffection unless it incites violence."
Says Liang: "The problem with the entire polarised debate about nationalism is that it creates in a way an idealisation, where there is a kind of a wounded narcissism whenever there is any criticism, internal or external, of the state, and this extreme polarisation borrows itself from the language of the friend and the enemy and this is something we have to absolutely reject, wholeheartedly."
"A dissenter to my mind is someone who articulates this politics of citizenship where you are looking in a way at articulating what it might mean to be committed to a set of principles, equality, justice, dignity etc. rather than to the trappings of the formal state. And that's the reason why any criticism that's grounded on a substantive politics is negated by this idea of the symbolic politics of nationalism..." Liang adds.
During the constituent assembly debates, sedition was initially included in the restricted clause of free speech, but it was dropped because it found vociferous opposition from all sides, because a large number of people who had been part of the anti-colonial struggle had been charged under section 124A. The law stayed, however, as a memorialisation to Partition, Liang says, quoting a historian.
Referring to JNU he says, "If universities are the mirrors of the health of a democracy, JNU presents a very healthy picture in which a diversity of opinion, a healthy regard for disagreement and a tradition of dissent have been the marking features."