The Union Finance Minister and a hardcore saffronite Arun Jaitley&’s statement, “freedom of expression and nationalism do necessarily co-exist” and the Constitution gives “full freedom for expressing dissent and disagreement but not the country&’s destruction” reflects his abysmally poor knowledge of history.
Even if nationalism is to be emphasised, Jaitley, the BJP president Amit Shah and even the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) Sarsangchalak (chief) Mohan Bhagwat have little moral right to talk of nationalism, nor ought to identify who is committed to nationalism.
The RSS, to which all the three BJP leaders are deeply committed, never took part in the freedom struggle.
The legendary freedom fighter Trailokyanath Chakraborty (known as Maharaj) was on record that when he approached the RSS Sarsanghchalak, Dr KS Hedgewar, on behalf of armed revolutionaries for assistance in importing arms and ammunitions, he was refused co-operation. Nationalism, nevertheless, is a burning question today as the RSS and its subordinate outfits like BJP and Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad have been aggressively at work in branding the slightest dissent as seditious under Section 124 A of Indian Penal Code.
This is why the issue—whether freedom of expression is to be subservient to imposed nationalism or even patriotism is now being discussed in India.
It should be clear though that patriotism is not synonymous with nationalism. Hitler was an aggressive nationalist but never a patriot. Consider the observations of the late Tapan Raychaudhuri, a historian of international stature and formerly Ad Hominem Chair as Professor of Indian History and Civilization at St Anthony&’s College, Oxford in a lecture, on the streams of Indian History at the Bengal Club in Kolkata in mid-December 2012.
“If you teach history, you cannot avoid saying unpleasant things. And sometimes, you cannot get away with it either,” he told the audience.
Tolerance has been ingrained in the Indian tradition while intolerance is a Western phenomenon he said and, contextually, mentioned that thousands of young men and women were killed by the Indian army in Kashmir.
In an interview to Hindustan Times on March 8, 2002, he had also asserted that “…the people who are fighting in Kashmir are not fundamentalists”, unlike the Talibans (contextually, he reiterated that he was against the prefix ‘fundamentalist’ to religious terrorists). Had he said these words today, Jaitley and Shah and the ABVP might have demanded that Raychaudhuri be booked under Section 124A of IPC.
So would Rabindranath Tagore. The composer of India&’s national anthem was unequivocally opposed to both nationalism and patriotism. Gopal Krishna Gandhi has refreshed public memory vis-a-vis his immortal lines: “I will never allow triumph over humanity as long as I live”.
The poet emphatically stated in the same essay “Patriotism cannot be our final spiritual shelter; my refuge is humanity. That two of his songs, Jana Gana Mana and Amar Sonar Bangla are national anthems of India and Bangladesh has very little to do with “nationalism” as propagated today and Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi&’s obituary to the poet, “we have lost the greatest poet of our age ..an ardent nationalist who was humanitarian” could have been more appropriately worded.
Tagore, it may be noted, was perhaps the first from civil society to have envisioned the penumbra of humanimalistic feature in sedition or section 124A of IPC.
He did so the day before the rules for applying this nefarious section were promulgated when he read out an essay in Bengali, captioned Kantharodh (throttled voice) at the Town Hall of Calcutta: “Today the language in which I have risen to read this essay is the language of Bengalis, the language of the weak, language of a vanquished nation; yet our authorities are afraid of this language. One of the reasons of this fear is that they don’t understand this language. And wherever there is darkness of ignorance, there is an eerieness of blinded apprehensions.”
This was was when British rulers booked Bal Gangadhar Tilak for sedition—Queen Empress Vs. Bal Gangadhar Tilak (1897).
In the pre-Independence era, this medieval sub-section was frequently applied by the colonial rulers, mostly vindictively.
The judiciary at times, albeit very infrequently, snubbed the executive for applying the tortuous legal weapon though. One among such cases was the Niharendu Dutt Majumdar Vs. King Emperor (1942) FCR 48. The judiciary (the Privy Council ) cautioned “public disorder or the reasonable anticipation or likelihood of public disorder” was the gist of the offence.
The judges agreed that sedition means resistance or lawlessness in some form but even they stated that if there is no incitement to violence, there is no sedition.
Tagore was an internationalist, a hard core humanitarian. This was why the motto of Viswa Bharati was Yatra Vishwa Bhabatyekonedam (Where the world resides in a single nest). Like Marx, he was anti-statist. This is the line of thought that today&’s brand of nationalists need to familiarise themselves with before they fool around with sedition.
However, it is wishful thinking as those who are so overly worried about the ‘threat’ to nationalism and national integrity are in power.
According to the Dakar-based Marxist economist Samir Amin, the BJP is ‘Hindu comprador right’ . Intolerance is a weapon for the Sangh Parivar to carry forward the colonial policy of divide-and-rule for polarization along communal lines.
The relevance of Tagore in this hour of crisis of Indian identity is to build a humanitarian barricade in keeping with our history. The Trinamool Congress MP Sugata Bose rightly snapped his fingers at the treasury bench for the latter&’s “narrow, selfish and arrogant” stance towards dissent (implicitly indicting the ruling party and its mass fronts, especially student, on issues like the suicide of Rohith Vemula and arrest of JNU Student Union president Kanhaiya Kumar) by reminding it of the patriotism and nationalism of selfless personalities of Bengal such as Swami Vivekananda, Rabindranath Tagore, Deshbandhu Chittaranjan Das, Bipin Chandra Pal and Aurobindo Ghose.
Even so, the historian erred in branding Tagore as a “nationalist”. In his famous Lectures on Nationalism, the poet and thinker stated unequivocally: “India has never had a real sense of nationalism” though he conceded that right from his childhood, he “had been taught that idolatry of the Nation is almost better than reverence for God and humanity”. India&’s lone Nobel laureate in literature had disapproved of nationalism as “a great menace. It is the particular thing, which for years has been at the bottom of India&’s troubles”.
Almost echoing him, the FrenchAmerican philosopher, novelist and thinker, George Steiner quipped, “Nationalism is the venom of history.” The poet had sharp differences with his favourite novelist, Sarat Chandra Chatterjee, on the method of national struggle such as torching foreign cloth when millions of women in villages did not have the means to cover their nudity.
He raised the issue in two novels: The Home and The World and Four Chapters. The bard was on an identical wave length with Goethe who put “humanity above nations”. It was natural for the poet to disapprove of terroristic methods of freedom struggle even though he was against colonial rule (reflected in his return of knighthood in protest against the Jallianwala Bagh massacre) in contrast to Gandhi, CR Das and such others, who accepted the pseudo-independence of ‘dominion status’).
In a short piece in the Economic and Political Weekly, subaltern historian Partha Chatterjee fiercely defends the poet and his ‘passionate critique of nationalism’.
He argues: “The colonial law was designed to protect a government that was necessarily external to those over whom it ruled. One can see why any word, sign or visible representation that brought into hatred or contempt or excited disaffection, including disloyalty or enmity, towards the government, might have been considered punishable by the colonial state. But how can the same argument apply to a government that is set up through periodic elections within a constitution that the people have given to themselves?” Chatterjee takes on the judiciary too.
“Our courts, so fond of the modus vivendi rather than clear interpretation, have shied away from pronouncing Section 124A unconstitutional but have, instead, in repeated judgments, emphasized the distinction between advocacy and incitement and insisted that mere speech unconnected to actual harm caused against the state cannot be punished under this law.
But who cares? The administration in every state has used the law to harass and intimidate the political opposition”. There is also the issue of capital punishment to Afzal Guru and others of Kashmiri origin. Not all verdicts on even capital punishment were free from error.
The execution of a poor security guard, Dhananjoy Chatterjee, for alleged rape and killing of teenager Hetal Parekh in south Kolkata, was flawed, based on unconvincing evidence, according to a detailed study by two eminent statistical scholars of the Indian Statistical Institute, Probal Chaudhuri and Debashis Sengupta. This questions the very method of justice at the apex court.
As far as Afzal Guru is concerned, saffron leaders and ideologues are yet to show the guts to challenge the intrepid and rebel former Gujarat cadre IAS officer Harsh Mander who said, in an article in the weekly Janata (February 21, 2016) that if Kanhaiya Kumar were charged with sedition, "I too should be charged with the same crime”. Mandar addressed a meeting in solidarity with the JNUSU leaders, arrested under the infamous subsection and said that the February 9 meeting at the JNU campus was not to uphold separatist politics but to protest against death penalty awarded to Afzal Guru for his role in the Parliament attack of 2001.
Mander quoted from his article that appeared in The Hindu on February 9, 2013: “The hanging of Afzal Guru raises a thicket of debates—ethical, legal and political—about justice, law, democracy, capital punishment and a strong state”. This was reminiscent of Jawaharlal Nehru&’s chagrin about the modern state: “Violence is the very life blood of the modern state and social system”, Autobiography p 541).
It is such violence that feeds the saffron threat to the Indian democratic polity that continues to spread. The more the Sangh Parivar faces opposition from increasing number of people, the more it becomes aggressive. The RSS has certainly a game plan.
Do the BJP and other arms of Sangh Parivar plan to prevent the next Lok Sabha polls, scheduled to take place in 2019 when the BJP, going by the prevailing electoral trends, is unlikely to win even half of its present strength of 282 out of 543 seats in the Lok Sabha? The words of Tagore against Sedition need to be recalled in the current socio-political crisis of India.