Conversations on Sedition: Ritanjan Das and Abhijit Sengupta

The weeks following the February 9th incident within the JNU campus have been nothing but eventful in India’s social and political discourse. At least, this is something most of us will agree on, no matter which side of this increasingly impermeable “fence” we sit on.  There have been arguments, counter arguments thrown from each side to the other, names have been dug up and hurled across, evidence in favour of what purportedly happened or did not happen have been put up by each side for the other to see. Videos have been made, unmade; cartoons have been drawn, redrawn; political figures have been idolised, lampooned; students have been demonized and idolized; dangers of the increasing menace of nationalism and anti-nationalism have been stuffed down one’s throat through the so called idiot box or the smart net.

In the midst of this deluge of opinions and ideas, information and misinformation, the question that some have raised is, are both sides losing the plot a bit? What exactly are we discussing or debating so vociferously? Are we really listening to the other sides’ arguments, or are we just hearing a few words we want to hear and voicing our own opinions in pre-designed responses? These are some of issues we are highlighting in this piece, hopefully in a slightly different format than what we are used to elsewhere.

What follows is a conversation between two intelligent people from opposite sides of the fence. The conversation is based on some real ones, which the authors of this piece had actually engaged in with different individuals over the last few weeks. We have attempted to distil the central ideas of both sides and present it to the readers. We cannot and have not included every aspect of the ideas and opinions of both sides, and we will not include the abuse. But what we have attempted to capture, is a reasoned and rational attempt at understanding the real problem(s), as understood by each side.

The idea is not to arrive at an answer, but to highlight that there are no easy answers. Even the path to finding these answers, if there are any, is fraught with difficulty and tragedy. We don’t want to win the debate, but want to show how essential it is that each side to make an attempt at understanding the other. In the end, we are all Indians and we love the country and what it stands for, in our own way. That is probably getting too far ahead already, so let’s stop here and listen to this conversation. The conversation takes place between two individuals, who we call Red and Blue.

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Blue and Red bump into each other while trawling the Net. Too much have been happening recently, and they are both angry. They have been following each other’s posts and conversations. They eye each other warily, looking for an excuse to start a discussion while at the same time wondering whether it’s really worth it. Each thinks the other is deluded and living in the past. Blue decides to take the plunge. (Purely hypothetical, could have been Red as well.)

BLUE: Hi Red. I see you have been quite vociferous in your opinions recently. I hope you realise that I find them to be nonsensical and contradictory in many ways. Just wanted to let you know that some of it is downright hypocrisy.

RED: Hi Blue. You have been quite opinionated as well. Funny, but I see your opinions in exactly the same light! So there….!!

BLUE: Really? Why am I not surprised? Firstly, you guys hang on to an archaic and discredited political ideology, which has a dodgy history of identifying with national borders in the first place, and now you seem stand by people who openly ask for the disintegration of the country, who openly support a convicted terrorist, convicted by the Supreme judicial authority in the country? Aren’t these seditious actions? Should the police not take any action against them? Is this what legitimate students are supposed to be doing? Is this what universities are for, encourage this sort of dangerous thinking? To say what you feel, no matter how it affects anyone else or what the consequences are? Let the courts decide whether the student leader is guilty or not. Let the police do its duty.

What is happening here is a blatant attempt at politicising a disgusting event, making sure it’s just about the ruling party versus the rest, with no attempt at really understanding why people are reacting the way they are. Also, before you jump the gun, I strongly condemn the mob lynching of the students as well as any other unprovoked violence against them. There can be no excuse for that in a civilized society.

RED: Hold on, hold on. A lot of points made there. Let me try to answer them one at a time. There is at least one thing we agree on, that is the violence and abuse of students needs to be condemned and stopped immediately. Now regarding the other points you made…

  1.   As far as the question of ‘anti-India’ slogans is concerned, let’s point out at the onset that none of us yet know who raised those. The ‘video’ evidence that literally bifurcated national opinion only last week has turned out to be doctored, and there is no fresh evidence, at least in the public domain, against the accused students. And yet, we seem to be playing judge, jury and executioner all at once. Even more surprising, somehow our collective ‘national’ consciousness, preordained to a higher moral authority, seems to justify it all. Patriotism, in all its virtue, is a rather low hanging fruit of the modern nation-state project. But, by cleverly conflating it with a homogenizing narrative of an extremely heterogeneous ‘nation’, the state seems to be declaring a monopoly on ‘truth’, thus allowing it to create a binary of national vs anti-national. If you buy into that binary, you have already lost the plot my friend.

But we are getting ahead of ourselves. Let us return to the topic of those ‘anti-national’ slogans.       You and I can disagree with the sentiments expressed, condemn in the strongest possible words, organize demonstrations against those who shouted (once correctly identified), and take them to court (in a rather peaceful manner, hopefully!), but they remain just that: ‘slogans’, and not a call to arms. You will, I hope, recognize that certain sections of our society do harbour similar sentiments, and rather than stifling those thoughts, what better place than a university to address them? A university, by definition, is a place that should, and must, harbour diverse opinions, even if extreme. You can force the university to take cognisance of extreme opinions, take disciplinary action if need be, but by no means bring in the state machinery to crush what at the end of the day still remains an opinion, however distasteful.

Let us broaden the argument. You, without a shred of doubt, are proud of your nation. But may I ask what kind of a nationalism are we espousing here, if it feels threatened by the mere act of slogan shouting in a university by a handful of students, and resorts to a witch hunt in response? Is it not a rather weak nationalism? Do you really believe that the democratic traditions of our country does not have the largesse to accept a few diverse voices? I believe it does, and in fact, I would go to the extent of saying that I do not subscribe to a version of nationalism that is not embedded in the rights of democratic citizenship. If that makes me anti-national, so be it. The real challenge is to understand the source of such extreme disagreements, and accepting their right to disagree will be a good start in that direction.

 

  1. On the moot point of ‘sedition’, let me remind you that it’s an archaic colonial law. The irony of the situation is such that the very regime that implemented this law is the same regime against which your idea of nationalism takes root. Be that as it may, time and again has the Supreme Court refused to acknowledge sedition charges unless these were followed by clear acts of or incitement towards direct violence. There was NO such case here. A slogan shouting, however distasteful, does NOT amount to sedition under the current jurisprudence.

 

  1. You have also raised the point that how can one support Afzal Guru? This seems to be a particularly loaded question, creating rather stark polarizations nationwide, at least if television debates are anything to go by. But I think we are missing the plot here. Arguing for freedom of speech or on behalf of democratic citizenship does not automatically make one a sympathizer of Afzal Guru or a supporter of his actions. The point is that there is a significant section of our society that harbours a contrary opinion about the judgement that was passed, and I am arguing for a democratic space where those opinions can be aired. And while on the topic, the very government who is cracking down on a handful of students with all its might on the Afzal Guru issue, is in coalition with a party that describes Afzal as a shaheed (martyr). Is this not blatant hypocrisy? Or should the entire Kashmir valley be declared anti-national?

 

  1. Coming to your specific point about the student leader, exactly what are the charges? Have you read his entire speech? Was there anything ‘seditious’ at all, or for that matter any slogan against any particular brand of nationalism? You yourself admit that nothing is still proven, and yet he has been charged with sedition, called a terrorist, anti-Indian, threatened and beaten up inside court premises. How do you justify these actions? Does your nationalism support this? If yes, I will still respect your opinion, but I will absolutely and totally disagree. If no, I will urge you to see beyond this binary of pro/anti nation. What is at stake here is our right to question. A democracy thrives on three things, the rights to dissent, debate, and decide. But take away the first two, and we shall collapse into a totalitarian state where we will be forced to abide by only one kind of decision. Where how you and I will live and think will be decided by someone else. Is that your idea of a nation? It certainly isn’t mine.

 

BLUE: I am quite surprised by your use of the phrases such as ‘mere slogans’ and opinions, ‘even if extreme’, etc. Why don’t you understand that it all starts with slogans? What do you think will happen when these antinational protests spread and larger sections of India echo these slogans for independence? Would you wait till India’s disintegration simply because calling for a breakup of the nation falls within a democratic discourse and should be respected? I equate this with a Pakistani on Indian soil shouting anti-India slogans, and is probably worse given that it is coming from so called Indians.

With regard to the convicted terrorist, the judgement was passed by the Supreme Court. His mercy plea was rejected by the President of India – these decisions are usually not taken lightly. When you question this decision, you are questioning the Supreme Court, you are questioning the President’s action as well. How easy it is for you to do that!

Please note, university is a place for higher education, not exclusively for nurturing diverse thoughts. Diverse thoughts can be nurtured anywhere and the treatment should not be any different. So the logic of university waters out. Moreover, I as a taxpayer pay for JNU to run, hence I have a say in their activities. I welcome diverse and democratic opinion in a way that it enriches the decisions coming out of the disagreement. None of the slogans shouted seemed to have that objective.

The problem is that we misunderstand freedom of speech and forget where to stop. I would have been happy if the same current protestors also protested against lawlessness and human rights violations elsewhere, but given the general hypocrisy of folks on your side of the fence, don’t see that happening soon. Their failure to protest against the Kashmiri pundits driven out of Kashmir is one typical case in point. My only appeal to you (and your friends) – take a step back and try to be unbiased and protest for only what is needed and not for anything else.

 

RED:

  1. At the risk of repeating myself, let me remind you that mere sloganeering is NOT ‘seditious’ as long as there is no direct incitement/threat of violence. The conflation of sloganeering with ‘destruction of India’ is a naive argument at its best, as if a slogan for azaadi within a university campus will somehow immediately coalesce into a pan-India call for armed struggle against the state (and can we at least try to comprehend that the ‘state’ is different from the ‘nation’? The former is an institution with sovereign powers, the latter is an ‘imagined abstract’). I am not even venturing into the symbolism of sloganeering here…but I hope you understand that the slogan murdabaad is not a call to assassinate, but a demand for a particular structure of authority and power to be dismantled. There are countless examples where the Supreme Court has interpreted the sedition law – be it during the Khalistan movement or the case of Romilla Thapar vs the State of India – each time making the explicit connection of ‘sedition’ with an incitement to violence.

 

Let me also remind you that the present government is in coalition with another party whose leaders once burnt the Indian constitution, which would probably constitute a far greater act of anti-nationalism than sloganeering, but apparently it is fine to overlook such acts. Please understand that I am NOT saying the slogans were not ‘bad’, neither am I supporting the sentiments expressed. In fact there is enough case for university disciplinary action if these were indeed raised by registered students. But under no circumstances can a civilized democratic society allow police force inside a campus when there was no incitement of violence, but what at its worst was an extremely distasteful form of political opinion, but an opinion nonetheless. And the person who has been arrested, had nothing to do with these opinions. Doesn’t that sound a bit odd?

 

  1. With reference to Afzal Guru, once again, let me point out that this debate is not about that particular case. The point is, irrespective of your or my opinion of the judgement, anyone who harbours a contrary opinion has the right to express it. By that token, you can also argue that since the Supreme Court metes out death penalty or has refused to abolish section 377, issues such as capital punishment or homosexuality are also beyond discussion. The point, I re-iterate, is the space to debate. You can have your idea of what is India or anti-India, and I can have mine, but you cannot throttle my right to have an opinion different from yours. That is not what a democracy, and for that matter India, is all about.

 

  1. When it comes to students and their role in state subsidized universities, my idea of education profoundly differs from yours. I will continue to believe that a student’s primary and ultimate responsibility is to question monolithic thought, and accept diversity of opinion as a central tenet of a free progressive and forward thinking society. Let the student decide what he or she wants to believe in, what line of thought and opinion he or she wants to adopt. The university’s role is to train them the ability of critical thought and reasoning, the ability to filter what in their opinion is right and wrong. The university is NOT about training them in a specific line of thought, even if that line of thought is presumed to be from the “majority” of tax payers of the nation. That brings me to your so called tax-based right to nationalism. By that same token, over 90% of Indians shouldn’t have any rights or say at all, as they don’t pay taxes. Or those who belong to a higher tax bracket than yours should enjoy more rights and have more say in national matters than you. And what would you say to those vast number of tax payers, who take every chance of reducing their tax burden “legally”. Do they have a greater say in the national debate or less? And finally, you pay tax because you have to, not voluntarily because you want a say in national policy making, nor do you buy ‘rights’ as per your tax bracket. Whether you pay tax or not, has nothing to do with belonging to a nation, whether you have a say in the political discourse. In a democracy, you have that already, through something called the vote.

 

  1. On the question of hypocrisy and inability to speak out when other instances of injustice occurred: fair point, if true, but one wrong does not condone another. It is certainly not true that people failed to speak out then, but conversations were much more subdued then than now. There was no social media and only one channel in the idiot box, which was then the official mouthpiece, as it is now. The records of these conversations and protests are all there, all you have to do is go to a library or an archive and look. You will find them. In any case, even if you don’t believe me, as I mentioned, your sense of wrong from a few decades back cannot be used to justify the wrongs now. If that were so, we will be stuck in an endless cycle of retribution and violence.

 

  1. Finally, on your appeal to protest ‘only when it is needed and not for anything else’, let me humbly remind you that our constitution guarantees my democratic ‘right to protest’, a right that is free from your sense of propriety. This seems to be the meta-narrative of the moment, that a protest for democratic citizenship is somehow rather silly and naïve. It could certainly be so, and you are welcome to hold that opinion, but there is an inherent risk in such an argument, which takes us back to the very point I started this discussion with. Your approval of what I should be protesting for is a part of that same homogenising discourse that claims a monopoly on what is ‘true’, and any contrary opinion is therefore automatically wrong and unnecessary. That is the doorway to an Orwellian society my friend, and 1984 already marks a period dark enough in Indian history. I would like to stay clear of it a second time.

At this point, both Blue and Red are feeling a bit worn out and mutually decide to bow out gracefully. They both reiterate that the other is not seeing their points, but that it has been a civilised discussion and they can agree to disagree. They sign out.   

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The above conversation receives a lot of attention from their “friends”. Both sides receive almost the same number of “likes” and “shares”. Mini fights erupt around them in the virtual space about who is more or less right. Both receive a few pats on the back on having proven the other one wrong. Both feel rather good about themselves.

The storm brews on in television channels for a few more days, politicians embark on a bizarre tangent of mythological blame-games, and India manages to beat Pakistan in a cricket match. A well-nourished discourse of nationalism thus resumes its search for the elixir of ‘development’.

Somewhere, Rohith Vemula’s last letter becomes a part of a file.

One thought on “Conversations on Sedition: Ritanjan Das and Abhijit Sengupta

  1. Bhavesh Dalal

    Very well written article! You have done justice to both viewpoints, which is missing in most media articles on this subject.

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