This is a guest post by NAMRATA SHARMA
I will start this piece with a painful but short flashback tirade about myself. I moved back to New Delhi in 2014, after six long years in New York and Singapore. My decision to move back to the motherland was predominantly attributed to issues that a twenty-something grapples with when he or she is away from home and family. However, familial ties and emotional reasons aside, there was one factor which deeply resonated with me and was the driving force behind my decision to move back. This factor was – the liberty to express my thoughts and views on a topic, any topic, in an indulgent and lenient space, which, by virtue of being an Indian citizen, was guaranteed to me in India and not in other places. In India, this liberty transcended predictable spaces like classrooms, newsrooms and sophisticated editorial pages of the morning newspaper and was very organically present in the form of arm-chair political banter amongst friends and political conversations with family over dinner.
Much of this familiarity I took for granted during my growing up years in India, much like any other rebellious teenager who would vehemently detest eating their dinner while the daily news bulletin was on air. During my time away from India, it dawned upon me that I was losing my intellectual ability to pragmatically understand and deconstruct social and political thoughts. It so happens that, in the middle of a lush, beautiful park in downtown Singapore, there is a small venue called ‘Speakers’ Corner’. The unique aspect about Speakers’ Corner is that it is a place for the citizens of Singapore to hold peaceful demonstrations and speak on topics which concern them, but only after prior registration on a government website. Registration is mandatory and is a prerequisite because such activities are heavily regulated in other parts of the island country. When I first found out about this regimented process, I was intrigued and confused because the concept of seeking permission before opining was very unfamiliar to me.
This, and some other consequential instances, fueled my desire to move back to New Delhi to live and experience the freedom which, by virtue of being an Indian, I was truly entitled to, but, I had never paid any attention to. My re-location coincided with the 2014 General Elections and my friends and co-workers often chided me for moving back from a place which is ranked as the world’s second safest city after Tokyo. I constantly defended my decision, sometimes not so persuasively, to say that this country, my country, offers me the free will to speak, to not be afraid of my thoughts, to not worry about being politically correct, to question my politics, to express myself, to debate, to deconstruct and above all, to never develop an Orwellian fear psychosis that ‘Big Brother’ is watching.
Now, if we focus on the dramatic events of the past week in the national capital, the absurdity of which I am still grappling with, I feel extremely disillusioned that, perhaps, I may have romanticized this surreal and elusive idea of freedom in India. Needless to say, this narrative is not about me, neither is it about my life and my choices. This narrative is about India’s watershed moment that is currently underway, arguably the strongest series of events after the Emergency in 1975, which will determine the future course of politics and principles for our nation.
It is deeply distressing to witness the arrest of Kanhaiya Kumar, a student activist from the prestigious Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) over charges of ‘sedition’ under the Indian Penal Code, 1860, an offence punishable with life imprisonment, for a very fiery but innocuous speech made by him. Due to the zealousness of social media, I have seen and read a few transcriptions of this speech, which does not appear to be seditious, even though it cleverly criticizes the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). However, that is a matter for the courts of this country to deliberate and decide.
It is the aftermath of this arrest which is gravely perturbing – the protests organized by ring-wing proponents disparaging a highly reputable university like JNU; news anchors on television doctoring footage and then bellowing and accusing their guests; venomous and self-righteous debates on who is a ‘patriotic national’ and who is an ‘anti-national’; and elected legislative members and members of the bar acting violently and threatening to kill a dissenting person. All this purports a very bleak picture of the future of our country.
Without getting emotionally swayed by our patriotic sentiments, these instances of failure of ethos and constitutional machinery should force us to ask ourselves that,as a country, are we really so feeble that we have to perceive every non-conformist voice as a threat and then act on vilifying and shunning the same? Are we so deeply insecure that we need to censor and impose limitations on a non-violent, unarmed act, such as, speech? Do we believe that we are god-sent Samaritans empowered to decide if someone else is an ‘anti-national’, based on what is palatable to us?
My thoughts on these inquiries leave me in deep dilemma. India is a country of diversity and plurality. With such plurality comes tolerance, not in a negative sense of forcefully suffering something or someone, but an optimistic way of enjoying a unique medley of multiple traditions. As a tool, vigilance is a way of streamlining myriad thoughts, ideas and beliefs using a cookie-cutter. While this approach can be effective in a less diverse space, it is bound to fail in India. Sadly, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led current Government does not think so. Intimidation is an effective device, although short-lived in impact. In this case, Goliath (that is, the Government) feels that it has a lot of Davids to fight in the form of the Left, liberals and atheists, to name a few.
In a democracy, the opposition is as integral as the party in force. The role of the opposition is to question and challenge the ruling party on its actions and manner of governance. In a true democracy, this idea of questioning, of rebuttal, transcends the floors of the Parliament or the House and moves to the citizens. Any state that coerces its media, politicians, bureaucrats and activists into blindly aligning with the ruling party may be categorized as a dictatorship, either draconian or benevolent, depending on the extent of concentrated effort made towards silencing the common collective.Freedom to air one’s view is the lifeline of any democratic institution and any attempt to stifle, suffocate or quash this right should sound like an alarm to the death of democracy. As Evelyn Beatrice Hall wrote in The Friends of Voltaire, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
While dissent is an old drug in the dance of democracy, castigating someone as ‘anti-national’ is the new opium. Given the casual frequency with which this ominous phrase is being throwing around by the BJP, the Government and their storm troopers, I assumed they would know what it actually means. Maybe, there exists a gadget like the one featured in my childhood favourite, Mr. India, which if turned on makes you a ‘patriotic national’ and if turned off makes you an ‘anti-national’. To my surprise, there is no bright-line test around who can be labeled as an ‘anti-national’. Given the degree to which this term is being passionately debated these days, it may sound like an over-simplification, but for the uninitiated like me, ‘anti-nationalism’ literally means,‘criticism directed to a particular nation’.
Moreover, this concept of ‘anti-nationalism’ does not include criticism of any particular ideology or political party. By this rationale, a beef-eater, an atheist, a moderate Hindu, a supporter of non-violence or a feminist cannot be and should not be branded with this infamous title. If concepts such as nation, ideology and political party could be used interchangeably, India would be equivalent to the BJP and/or Hindutva, which is definitely not the case.India has an identity devoid of any basis in any particular ideology or political party. While we may be a predominantly Hindu country by population, purely because majority of the citizens are inclined towards a particular faith, being a Hindu country cannot be ascribed as our characteristic. The Preamble to the Indian Constitution proudly identifies us as a “sovereign socialist secular democratic republic”and that identity has been unshaken through the sixty seven years of this republic.
As some senior journalists have convincingly questioned the banality of this‘anti-national’ philosophy, I would like to focus on the possible connotations of the other trivial conjecture – in the current scheme of events, who is a patriotic national? Does threatening a female journalist in the courtroom make me a patriotic national? Does hitting and abusing a protester solely because I disagree with his ideology make me a patriotic national? Does maliciously doctoring videos to convey lies to the public make me a patriotic national? Does sensationalizing news reports about a fellow citizen and alleging links to terrorist organizations, without any basis and evidence, make me a patriotic national? Does boasting about my political clout make me a patriotic national? Does opening flouting a police order to present myself for questioning make me a patriotic national? Does proudly felicitating a lawyer, instead of charging him with a criminal offence, make me a patriotic national? Does demanding that my opponents with a conflicting viewpoint be sent to Pakistan make me a patriotic national? Does committing assault but ensuring that I hold the tri-colour while doing so make me a patriotic national? Does bragging about our soldiers’ death in Siachen but not actively supporting the One Rank One Pension (OROP) scheme make me a patriotic national? Does turning aggressive just at the thought of Kashmir and its secession make me a patriotic national? Does fueling polarization of citizens based on belief, religion, faith and ideology make me a patriotic national? Does killing someone for being a beef eater make me a patriotic national? Does rebuke and non-acceptance of the national flag on grounds that it promotes secularism make me a patriotic national? Does being a crusader for my religion and condemning all artistic depiction of the same as blasphemous make me a patriotic national? Lastly, does being intolerant make me a patriotic national?
I would like to believe that answers to the aforesaid questions should be in the negative. However, in the India I came back to, these answers are in the affirmative. While I leave you to ponder over yeh kahan aa gaye hum (how did we manage to reach this perilous place), the most worrisome aspect of the present situation is that this political jingoism is being carried out in the name of “Bharat Mata”, where the Government and its supporters have assumed their role as self-proclaimed custodians of “Bharat Mata”. Little do they realize that even “Bharat Mata” has multiple secular facets and also ramifies itself as “Mother India” and “Hindustan”! What is the BJP going to do to protect and uphold these other facets or has it reconciled to its default ideological position of only worrying about “Bharat Mata”? Your guess is as good as mine.
Namrata Sharma is a lawyer and resides in New Delhi. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org