[An edited version of this article by me has appeared in the November-December 2010 issue of Conveyor, a magazine published from Srinagar.]
On 22 October 2010, there was a public seminar in Delhi, titled “Azadi: The Only Way”. I did not plan to attend it as I had important work that day. However, a day before the event, it was announced that the keynote speaker would be none other than Syed Ali Shah Geelani. How could one not go to hear what the man of the moment had to say?
I reached late, when two speakers had already spoken, Kashmiri Pandits had already created a scene, even getting into a physical fight with some Kashmiri Muslims. As I entered the precincts of the Little Theatre Group auditorium, I met Delhi University student Suvaid Yaseen who showed me a small cut in his hand, caused by the fisticuffs with the Pandits. Some of the Pandits had been taken away by the Delhi Police and detained for a few hours, many others still inside the auditorium. The auditorium was full of cries of “Hum kya chahtay? Azadi!” To hear that in central Delhi rather than Srinagar’s Lal Chowk is a little incredible. But it had happened before, on 7 August, at Jantar Mantar, the only place in the capital of the world’s largest democracy where protest is allowed. At Jantar Mantar too, Pandits were being restrained by the Delhi Police.
The Jantar Mantar event was to protest the then ongoing killings of protestors demanding Azadi on the streets of Kashmir, and the seminar now was to discuss Azadi. I was pleased that this was happening, because in August I had written an article arguing the only way out of the deadlock in Kashmir is a dialogue between the people of Kashmir and the people of India. Not that I expect such a dialogue to make Indians say that Kashmir should be free or Kashmiris accept the Indian flag as their own, but at least Indians would know the truth about Kashmir, unmediated by the dishonest Delhi media. I was happy that Delhites had a chance to listen to voices from Kashmir, and I am delighted that this is going further, with Kashmiris travelling to address audiences as far away as Kolkata and Chennai.
However, I also felt a little uncomfortable. A section of the Pandits, who claim monopoly over the grief of displacement and “exile” in South Asia, have organised themselves under the banner of “Roots in Kashmir”. RIK members, few of whom have ever lived in a refugee camp, are smart enough to manipulate such events to perpetuate their image as victims and that of all Kashmiri Muslims as victimisers and ‘Islamist’ ‘terrorists’. Images of them being dragged away by the Delhi Police would be shown on Times Now no doubt, I thought, and they would cry blue murder about demands of Azadi being raised in Delhi.
Such events in Delhi mean a lot to Kashmiri Muslims living in Delhi, as they live under constant fear of a fake encounter, of arrest and everyday discrimination. It was courageous of them to come out and shout Azadi slogans. Yet, I had doubts. To organise a sit-in protest in Jantar Mantar you need to ‘inform’ the Delhi Police in advance, and an event like the Azadi seminar cannot be held without the Indian state letting it take place. It is not as if the oppressed have to be grateful to the oppressors for allowing them the right to speak, but, I wondered, will this not be used to ask, ‘Look, you claim India is killing people in Srinagar when they ask for Azadi. How is that possible when India is allowing Kashmiris to shout Azadi in the heart of Delhi?’
Sure enough, I overheard a Times Now reporter inform the channel’s viewers on phone that the seminar was undemocratic, that the Pandits were not being heard, their voices were being drowned out. This was the opposite of what was taking place. Kashmiri Pandits had occupied front rows, even sitting on the floor, and were disrupting every speaker. As the seminar proceeded, Syed Ali Shah Geelani and Arundhati Roy were especially being prevented from speaking. The Pandits would shout “Bharat Mata ki!” And their answer – “Jai!” – was drowned out by Kashmiri Muslims who said, “Azadi!” When the Pandit protests halted the seminar for more than a few minutes, someone on stage said that all those who want the seminar to continue should clap. The clapping drowned out the Pandits voices. Who was being undemocratic?
One of the speakers was artist and writer Shuddhabrata Sengupta, who published online a detailed account of the meeting by midnight. He did so because he knew there would be obfuscation in the media reporting. He was right. The media focused on Geelani and Roy demanding azadi, as if they said nothing else, had no arguments, and as if there were no other speakers. The Bhartiya Janta Party immediately demanded that Roy and Geelani be booked for sedition.
Palaniappan Chidambaram, the Home Minister of India, is a smart man. He did not reject the BJP’s demand, for that would have given them political fodder in the form of an opportunity to accuse the government of going soft on ‘separatists and their sympathisers’. So he said, the Delhi police had made a video recording of the event and they are looking into it. The TV channels and news wires were set on fire. ‘India to charge writer Arundhati Roy with sedition,’ the headlines went. Soon enough, Top Sources had informed Top Editors that the government did not in fact intend to press sedition charges. But this much to-and-fro was enough to make Sedition vs. Free Speech the story in Delhi’s sound-bite-driven media. Some argued for it, some ‘debated’ it against free speech, some pointed out the irony of Arundhati Roy being charged for sedition, as she had once declared herself to be a ‘mobile republic’.
No one made the point that in a free society ideas we find disagreeable must be countered with ideas. Dr Sheikh Showkat Hussain’s questions must be answered, Arundhati Roy’s challenges taken on intellectually, and Syed Ali Shah’s explanations of the Kashmiri movement posed with further questions. Those who want to send the speakers to jail clearly don’t have answers. They only have a flag. Arundhati Roy, on her part, has answered them intellectually by quoting Nehru to show she has said nothing on Kashmir that India’s first prime minister did not.
The result of the media hysteria was that the media was forced to discuss A and K, Azadi and Kashmir, together. Usually the media likes to report K without A, when the conflict in K is all about A. That can only be a happy thing, eh?
I wondered again: this can’t be so easy. It all fell in place so smoothly. I wondered if the establishment was creating a climate for the media to bring up the A word, as if the establishment had decided it was going to tell the people of India the truth about the conflict in Kashmir.
I wondered if the government was allowing these protests and seminars to take place, and providing police protection to boot, to let the Kashmiri pressure cooker release some steam? You see, the Commonwealth Games and President Obama were upon us, and the international embarrassment of a people’s movement in Kashmir that had to be brought under control. So was this sedition tamasha another stone in that direction? I did notice Facebookers and Tweeple from the Valley feel these events and the media ‘debates’ on Sedition/Azadi were an acknowledgement of their movement.
Which they indeed were, and that is not a bad thing per se. My doubts and conspiracy theories apart, this was a reflection of what the Kashmiri people’s movement, resilience and sacrifices this summer and for the last three summers and the last twenty years, had achieved. “Hum kya chahtay? Azadi!” was now being heard in India’s drawing rooms.
This is not to say we are passive participants in a Bollywood film whose scriptwriter is the Home Ministry. But considering that when a similar seminar was taking place in Srinagar three days later, the Home Ministry’s interlocutors were acknowledging azadi at the same time, declaring boldly that there were ready to talk A in K… something was cooking.
Nothing was said at the seminar that has not been said before. Arundhati Roy has advocated azadi on the cover of a mainstream magazine. Why this hysteria now? On the part of the Pandits, it was obviously a response to the mounting pressure of the Kashmiri people who were clearly showing the world the immorality of the Indian occupation of their land.
Syed Ali Shah Geelani said there were 90 cases against him and this would be just one more. No big deal. But you would have to be an extremely paranoid person to believe the Indian government will charge Arundhati Roy with sedition. Arundhati Roy is India’s dissident-in-chief. Turning her into a political prisoner would make India look like China or Burma. There would be international condemnation, protests outside Indian embassies in the West, demands for her freedom on the internet. I wonder whether the Pandits who want to see her and others in jail, do they not realise how politically counterproductive that is? Can’t they see what Chidambaram can? It will bring greater international attention to the Kashmiri demand for self-determination. It would be a PR disaster bigger than the Commonwealth Games. It would take the sting out of India’s diplomatic superpower-speak about being the world’s largest democracy.
These stupid democratic compulsions, security hawks must think over their single malt. Alas.
These democratic compulsions come in the way of India going the full hog and cracking down on dissent the way, for example, today’s Sri Lanka is doing. These democratic compulsions leave open a small window for human rights and free speech in an India increasingly under the grip of security hawks. This is what prevents them from putting behind bars Kashmiris demanding azadi on Facebook and Twitter, even as they kill them for doing so on the street.
At the Azadi seminar in Delhi, not all Pandits were out to raise a storm in a tea cup. There was an angelic-looking middle-aged man standing near an exit gate, listening patiently, smirking with predictable regularity and appearing to be amused at what was being said on stage. A friend told me his name was Sushil Pandit, a famous name in advertising and an influential one in Panun Kashmir circles.
Later it turned out that when the government ruled out pressing charges against the speakers at the seminar, Sushil Pandit tried filing an First Information Report with the Delhi Police, which they didn’t (because their boss Chidambaram at the Home Ministry didn’t want them to). Then Mr Pandit filed a complaint in a magistrate’s court, and the magistrate ordered the police to register the FIR. The complaint next comes up for hearing on 6 January 2011.
The complaint named seven individuals – revolutionary poet Varavara Rao; human rights activist Sujato Bhadra; Hurriyat leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani; writer Arundhati Roy; Dr. Sheikh Showkat Hussain, Professor of Law at Kashmir University; Shuddhabrata Sengupta, artist and writer; and SAR Geelani, working president of the Committee for the Release of Political Prisoners, which had organised the seminar in the first place.
The media, however, has mostly named only Roy and Geelani, as if the others don’t exist. The media also refrained from telling us what exactly they said apart from demanding azadi. For instance, personally I found the dialogue between Arundhati Roy and SAS Geelani fascinating. Roy asked if there would be justice in independent Kashmir, and Geelani answered what his idea of justice would be. I found Dr Hussain’s speech powerful: he answered various Indian red herrings about why Kashmiris should not be granted the right to self-determination. If the media were to be honest and give its viewers and readers a more informed sense of what transpired at the seminar, perhaps the Indian public could place the issue of sedition in better context.
I also wonder why Mr Sushil Pandit did not name in his petition at least nine others who supported and demanded azadi for Kashmir at the same seminar: the journalist Najeeb Mubarki; Har Charanjit Singh and Kanwarpal Singh of Dal Khalsa; Dr. N. Venuh, Secretary General of the Naga Peoples’ Movement for Human Rights; Malem Ningthouja of the Committee for Peace and Democracy, Manipur; G N Saibaba, Deputy Secretary, Revolutionary Democratic Front (RDF); Shiv Nandan, democratic rights activist from Jammu; Amit Bhattacharya, professor of history in Jadavpur University; and lastly, Thiagu, General Secretary, Tamil National Liberation Movement, who could not attend in person but his note of solidarity, ‘My name is Kashmir’, was read out.
Sushil Pandit is a close associate of the BJP leader Arun Jaitley, and it does not seem co-incidental that since the seminar, RSS cadres protest against Arundhati Roy wherever she goes. The BJP women’s wing attacked and vandalised her house. It is also in order that the BJP mouthpiece The Pioneer falsely reported that Arundhati Roy had said, “Kashmir should get Azadi from bhookhe-nange Hindustan”. Pioneer columnist Ashok Malik repeated the false claim on Barkha Dutt’s show on NDTV.
Arundhati Roy said that the India had inherited the colonial state. Those charging her with sedition don’t realise the irony of proving her right on that count, because as Nivedita Menon pointed out in an article, sedition was enshrined in the Indian Penal Code’s section 124 (A) by the British colonial government in 1860. The Indian state persists with it, having merely changed in its text words like “Her Majesty,” “the Crown representative” and “British India”. The charge of sedition – to ‘excite disaffection against the government’ – was used by the colonial government against Indian freedom fighters. Menon recountsed that in 1922, pleading guilty to the charge of sedition, Mohandas Gandhi said before a judge in Ahmadabad, “I have no desire whatsoever to conceal from this court the fact that to preach disaffection towards the existing system of Government has become almost a passion with me…” Sedition, said Gandhi, “in law is a deliberate crime”, but it “appears to me to be the highest duty of a citizen”.
In January 2010, nine months before this seditious seminar took place in Delhi the British parliament had abolished sedition in UK!
Those who enjoy the freedom won for them by such people as Gandhi today want to use that same law against fellow Indians and those who dare say they don’t want to call themselves Indian. Arundhati Roy’s response was not sufficient to make these people change their minds: “Pity the nation that has to silence its writers for speaking their minds… that needs to jail those who ask for justice, while communal killers, mass murderers, corporate scamsters, looters, rapists, and those who prey on the poorest of the poor, roam free.
Disaffection means “the absence or alienation of affection or goodwill; estrangement”. Does it look like there is a whole lot of goodwill towards the Government of India in Kashmir, which Roy has to work hard towards alienating? All over the North-East and Kashmir, reeling under the military jackboot of the draconian AFSPA, the Government of India is nothing but an occupying army, a spontaneous disaffection generator.
A young Manipuri lecturer in Delhi University tells of sitting at a roadside dhaba in Imphal with a few friends, when a uniformed Indian Army officer passing by, stopped. Stand up, he barked. Sing the national anthem. They had barely begun, when he slapped one of them. Your accent is wrong, he said. Do it again. They did it again.
No isolated incident this, but simply the routine humiliation of an occupied people. The Indian Nation rampant in all its pride and glory, generating affection.
“Sedition” and “contempt of court” have no place in a modern democracy. No justification whatsoever for provisions that criminalize and silence dissent, critique and ethical challenges to the dominant order. These provisions are unconstitutional, anti-democratic and utterly intolerable.
Sedition has been used by the central and especially by state governments many a time since then, but the charge is legally weak because through the case law that has developed over the years, it has been established by the Supreme Court that sedition charges would press only if the speech act intentionally disturbs public order and incites violence.
The threat of sedition, Lawrence Liang has commented, is a “legal commitment to love your nation”. The ludicrousness of asking citizens to make such a legal commitment has reflected in the history of sedition law in independent India. Legal researcher Siddharth Narrain has pointed out that in the Draft Constitution, sedition was going to be one of the reasons the Indian state could restrict the right to free speech, but they eventually decided against it. Nehru circumvented this by adding ‘public order’ and ‘relations with friendly states’ as ‘reasonable restrictions’ to free speech. This was the Indian Constitution’s First Amendment, in parliament debates on which Nehru said:
Take again Section 124-A of the Indian Penal Code. Now so far as I am concerned that particular Section is highly objectionable and obnoxious and it should have no place both for practical and historical reasons, if you like, in any body of laws that we might pass. The sooner we get rid of it the better. We might deal with that matter in other ways, in more limited ways, as every other country does but that particular thing, as it is, should have no place, because all of us have had enough experience of it in a variety of ways and apart from the logic of the situation, our urges are against it.[Empahasis mine.]
Nehru’s unease over sedition, ‘his urges against it’, are on account of the experience of post-colonial democracy, but the temptation to press sedition charges comes with the monolithic logic of nation-states. Shall we say, then, that the ideal of democracy is incompatible with the ‘logic’ of nation-states? For what sort of a nation-state will want to forgo any part of its territory, let a section of its people rebel against it? The logical urges of sedition flow from the logic of nation-states, democracy or no democracy.
What makes sedition a laughable charge now, however, is the indiscriminate way in which state governments have been using it to silence dissent and settle political scores. Sedition has, for example been pressed:
- Against Vishwa Hindu Parishad leader Ashwin Patel in Gujarat for sending out SMS-es against Narendra Modi. (In Kashmir, of course, they banned SMS for months to prevent citizens from inadvertently violating their legal commitment of love for the state.)
- Against the Times of India’s Ahemdabad editor Bharat Desai and reporter Prashant Dayal for a news story that accused the Ahemdabad police commissioner of working for a mafia don. A Gujarati paper’s editor Manoj Shinde, has been charged with sedition for criticising the Narendra Modi government’s handling of floods. Gujarat seems to be the sedition capital of India.
- Against Dr E Rati Rao, a human rights activist in Karnataka, has been charged with sedition for “favouring Naxals and Muslims and propagating that the police are killing innocent people in the name of encounter”.
- Against Piyush Sethia, an enviromentalist in Salem, Tamil Nadu, for distributing pamphlets against the central government’s plans to militarily take on the Maoists. Sethia was arrested on 26 January, the day India celebrates its Constitution.
- Against the Tamil Nadu politician V. Gopalasawmy (Vaiko) for daring to say that if Sri Lanka’s war on the LTTE was not stopped, India would not remain one country.
- Against Lenin Kumar, editor of a magazine named Nishan, for publishing an article on the violence against Christian Dalits and adivasis in Kandhamal, Orissa.
- Against Binayak Sen in Chattisgarh for allegedly helping the Maoists, when all he’s been doing is opposing the state’s private tribal militia and giving medical aid to the poor.*
- Against Gujjar community leader Kirori Singh Bainsla for leading an agitation to demand Scheduled Tribe status for his community in Rajasthan – for demanding something within the Constitution!
- Against Punjab politicians for distributing pamphlets containing Bhrindanwale’s speeches already available in published books.
Recently, a newsmagazine in Delhi released taped phone calls that showed, amongst other things, that Ratan Tata’s lobbyist Niira Radia was making sure India gets a telecom minister who has made favours to the Tata group in allocation of second generation telecom spectrum. While the Indian Express and NDTV never told us about these tapes, the former’s editor Shekhar Gupta interviewed Ratan Tata on NDTV, and said as part of his fawning ‘questions’, “And it (the Radia tapes) is flooding the environment with things that are very seditious. ” So crony capitalism is the new nationalism!
It is clear that at this rate, we are all seditious now. I repeat Gandhi’s statement before a judge in 1922, that sedition is the highest duty of a citizen. As an Indian I believe in the Constitution of India. I endorse the Kashmiris’ right to demand independence from India because the values of occupation are not the values of the founding fathers of the Indian Constitution. Forcing a society to identify itself with the Indian Union is not the spirit of the Indian Constitution. If the idea of India is one where the self-appointed guardians of nationalism decide what national interest is, and then want to see in jail those who don’t agree with that version of national interest – we must all secede from such an India. We are all Kashmiris.
While the speakers at the Azadi seminar are unlikely to be convicted for sedition, the petitioners are probably hoping the legal harassment will act as a deterrent to others. As a response to them, I want to share this poem by Rabindranath Tagore that they must have once read in school:
Where the Mind is Without Fear
Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high
Where knowledge is free
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments
By narrow domestic walls
Where words come out from the depth of truth
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way
Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit
Where the mind is led forward by thee
Into ever-widening thought and action
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.
What could be more seditious than a mind without fear?
(This essay draws from commentary on sedition at Kafila.org.)
* Binayak Sen’s conviction too place after the writing of this article.