The dominant narrative around the recent JNU incident has been that the unwarranted police action and the concerted acts of violence, incitement and misinformation that followed are all part of a determined push by the saffron brigade. After love jihad and beef, the story has it, it is “sedition” and “Pakistani agent” this time—we are living in a state of undeclared emergency. A sense of disbelief and apocalyptic doom seem to underpin these sentiments, along with a nostalgic optimism for a quick return to harmony and normalcy. But such things have happened far too many times, and far too often for us to harbour such illusions. For what we are going through is in effect a recalibration of that normalcy.
To read political slogans literally is an absurdity. But in the hands of the present government, it is a calculated absurdity that reads “Bharat ki barbadi…” as armed conspiracy against the state. The variables are many—arrests, fake tweets, rampaging lawyers, patriotic house-owners and now, open calls for murder. But the calculus resolves itself into the same formula every time: national/anti-national.
At the outset, the opposition to the attack on the university campus seems to have coalesced around two points—first, maintaining a safe distance from the “anti-India” slogans raised at the meeting; and second, showing themselves as the real nationalists, standing against the saffron thugs in patriot’s disguise. Partly in response to a vicious media campaign, videos of “real nationalist” speeches at the protest venue are being posted on social media everyday. We are told at length about the “real” Indian behind the deshdrohi, his credentials, and how he wants his India to be. Things reached a disturbing pitch when spokespersons of the traditional Left went on record to express their displeasure at the real culprits not being caught. Without doubt, the saffron brigade cannot be allowed the prerogative of deciding what “the nation” means. But why do so from the flimsy ramparts of sedition?
Fortunately, the leadership of the movement somewhat distanced itself from this position. It helped matters that the “incriminating” videos being broadcast on news channels were soon revealed to be doctored. While one reporter resigned, others came out strongly on primetime shows against the media trial of the JNU protestors.
The “terrorist” bogey foiled for the moment and emboldened by growing support at protest marches, the movement seemed no longer about just saving JNU. In the air were now questions about the systematic targeting of Muslims, the assault on the Dalit-bahujan movement, anti-poor state policy and the privatization of education. As the movement finds itself at a crossroads of possibilities, the direct it eventually takes remains to be seen.
Be that as it may, in the pragmatics of political struggle, some critical questions have fallen by the wayside. Calls for “azaadi” are ringing out in protest marches across the country. There are calls for freedom from poverty, from Brahminism, from feudalism, from patriarchy, from Sanghi majoritarianism. It is true that this borrowing is in the spirit of political solidarity. But it is equally true that azaadi can now stand for everything except the oppression of smaller nationalities. The commemorative event to which this train of events traces itself raised the question of the violence of the nation-state—be it the long-standing oppression of smaller nationalities, or the juridical excess of the death penalty. But all that followed, it seems, could unfold only on a disavowal of this possibility. Since when, we ask, did solidarity become subject to such tactical repositioning?
So much sedition talk brings back grey memories. And this is not without its irony, since it is that abandoned question of the oppression of smaller nationalities that would be most instructive today. Perhaps a recap of the recent history of Assam, will offer some pertinent lessons.
The ethnic violence through the last years of the Assam Movement, and the substantive failure of the eventual Accord itself set off a period of intense political criticism through the 1980s. The historical difficulties of articulating the nationality question in Assam returned with full force. Organizations across the political spectrum worked furiously to come to grips with the realities of post-Accord politics. The Marxist-Leninist theses on smaller nationalities saw wide currency, with groups arriving at different political positions. Questions of reservation and cultural rights came up, statehood demands were made, armed struggle was proposed.
This deep political-intellectual ferment was arrested by the banning of ULFA and the commencement of military operations, Bajrang and Rhino through 1990-91. Most directly, support for national independence now became the key demand around which the political field was redefined. It would determine henceforth the range of engagements the state would make with various political organizations, and the possibilities of intervening in relations between organizations. It created an ambiguous political space that was built around pragmatic and contingent negotiations, escalations and withdrawals. It was in this space that Tata Tea could negotiate payments to armed organizations. It was also where officers could negotiate their payments with battered suspects in the interrogation chamber. Further, afield human rights violations imparted political lessons to the populace in ways that military operations could not. Through the 1990s counter-insurgency was administered through “secret killings” as ULFA members and relatives of underground leaders were targeted. Every security checkpost blurred the lines between legality and illegality, as the routine frisking became occasion for petty extortion and more. Assamese-speaking Sikhs in the district of Nagaon tell of being subjected to a contemptuous slap and a jibe at a checkpost: “what kind of a Sikh doesn’t know Punjabi?” The nation returned to administer its communities in strange new ways. Yes, grey with a gash of red is how those years are remembered.
Sedition, then, is a shade of grey. And that’s not because its legality is subject to interpretation. Rather, that is the colour of the ambiguities of illegality. Bombs, manifestos, secret societies only fill in the details of procedure. What matters is the possibility of being charged with sedition; and the new dimension of political manoeuvre that it opens up.
The exceptionality of the sedition law is not a measure that puts an end to politics. As the experience of over two decades in one of those hotbeds of “separatist sentiment” has taught us, it opens up a new space where the state may engage with political forces that stand outside the parliamentary structure of representation. It is the place where oppositional political movements may be engaged.
Sedition is not a relic from the colonial era. It is an integral part of the functioning of the modern nation-state. What we are witnessing today is not a perverse exception, but the state in its banal practicalities. This, indeed, is the space where the most sinister effects of the JNU incident will play out in the days to come, as critical political questions will come to be rearticulated, repositioned in subtle yet significant ways.
That being said, perhaps the question we need to grapple with is not so much the renewed offensive of the saffron brigade. The more disturbing truth that lurks in the shadows is that the state can only rule by operating in this space of grey. Sanghis of various shades will come and go, because the State cannot do without them.