For the longest of time, we have expressed our contempt for the offence of sedition in the Indian Penal Code. Make no mistake, this provision of law was also the single biggest weapon in the hands of the British empire to quell the freedom movement. Its most famous convict happens to be none other than the great Mahatma Gandhi. The number of dissenters (as opposed to terrorists) charged with sedition during the emergency is significant and the present ruling government knows that better than anyone else. In recent times everybody from cartoonists to celebrated writers have been charged with the offence and the place of sedition in a modern civilized society was challenged with great legitimacy and rigour. So are we really justified in invoking the sedition charge against JNU students simply because it is appropriate and convenient, when there is a larger question of principle in respect of it?
Personally the concept of showing solidarity for Afzal Guru and the slogans shouted in the same event, make me sick. However, there lies an identifiable distinction between a legal wrong and a moral one. While a legal wrong carries the prospect of state sponsored sanction, a moral wrong can at best be met with condemnation and dissent. See, unlike a legal wrong that carries parliamentary definition and constitutional approval, a moral wrong neither carries parliamentary definition, nor constitutional approval. In fact, a moral wrong is less defined and more perceived. This perhaps explains why someone who mocks at his elders, carries the burden of society’s judgement and not that of the courts’.
The constitutional validity of the offence of sedition needs to be reassessed, especially given the lack of uniformity and reasonableness in its application. So do we then grudgingly accept and agree that, while the JNU students guilty of anti India slogans and sentiments are wrong and disrespectful, they are not criminals in the eye of law?
Personally, I have to grudgingly state that as much as I staunchly condemn the students guilty of endorsing of Afzal Guru and his school of thought, I cannot justify the slapping of sedition charges against them. To me, it is a moral wrong and not a legal one. The ideological questions apart, there is also the issue of strategic utility. The hanging of Afzal Guru is in fact the primary reason behind this martyr perception. To charge the students behind this event, is to further throw lime light and visibility to Afzal Guru and all that he stood for. This is counter productive to our efforts against his compatriots in the cause against India. From a propaganda point of view- both the hanging and the proposed sedition charges will be milked to its maximum potential by terror groups and separatists alike.
I can already hear the Bhakts asking me if we should simply bend our backs then? That depends- what is our understanding of restraint? With strength at our disposal, restraint is not so much a symptom of weakness as much as it is a show of magnanimity. In this magnanimity, we will also challenge the tyrannical picture of India that is being painted by the separatists and terrorists alike. If India is painted as bloodthirsty and unreasonable, what better response could there be, than for the police to to say “these JNU students are just kids and juveniles are not worth our time?”. It would be short sighted and misplaced to give them so much attention. The real worry is not these students, but the larger issue of how we inspire patriotism and nationalism among our youth?
I loved my nation as a child and dreamed of joining the armed forces- one that became undone by under-confidence and in sufficient self respect. I chose instead to become a lawyer and the more involved I became, the more challenged I felt to retain my patriotism and nationalism. But I remind myself that in this country, I have been given the power to challenge a wrong. This power is not easy to exercise and one doesn’t always win. But this power exists and it is possible to win, albeit difficult. This is more than what most societies and nations can boast of. This is worth protecting, worth correcting, worth perfecting and worth nurturing.
No one forced me to feel this way- I simply feel this way because it is the most sensible choice to make. That is the operative word- choice and not constraint. Can we simply focus on reminding people that they have a choice and while we may not agree with their choices- the need to love India comes from the existence of this choice? It’s a narrative difficult to break down, articulate and to even comprehend. But it is what makes the most sense!
To the students of JNU, you and I are the truest representation of why this nation remains great- that while we dissent, we have the right and duty to this dissent and its protection respectively. I undertake to exercise this right with circumspect and humility. Can we simply all agree to do the same? No, you don’t have to. But it would enrich the quality of the debate and infuse intellectualism in our political discourse, if we all agreed. Having said that, I hope you don’t get punished for sedition and I hope you will continue to contribute to the greater good!
By Ashok GV
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