Branding Dissent As Anti-National

“The best way to take control over a people and control them utterly is to take a little of their freedom at a time, to erode rights by a thousand tiny and almost imperceptible reductions. In this way, the people will not see those rights and freedoms being removed until past the point at which these changes cannot be reversed.” – Adolf Hitler

As India debates over a sustained attack on civil liberties and free speech today, and the National Democratic Alliance-II government is on a spree to brand every dissenting voice as ‘anti-national,’ these words of the 20th century German fascist ruler echoes more strongly than ever. Who is an anti-national after all? If one goes by the Sangh Parivar’s logic, anyone who does not believe in aggressive-expansionist militarism, or anyone who voices the concerns of the minorities and scores of adivasis and Dalits living in abject penury, is an ‘anti-national.’ What else can one deduce at a time when six students of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) are facing sedition charges because they raised slogans for freedom – against feudalism, against patriarchy, against casteism?

At a time when three students are in police custody and three others are living in the fear of being arrested, the Sangh Parivar has raised its rhetoric of hyper-nationalism to polarise Indian society. One is reminded of the American president George Bush’s warning – you are either with us (the American government) or with them (terrorists). The narrow, majoritarian, and parochial view of nationalism that the Sangh Parivar espouses has divided the society into two halves, leaving no space for any dissent. The government has gone ahead to brand any criticism against the Indian ruling classes as anti-Indian.

With the crackdown on JNU, other university spaces, and civil rights activists in the war-torn Chhattisgarh, the NDA II government has taken India into a period of indefinite siege. The larger crackdown on critical spaces, and increasing vigilance of citizens in the name of nationalism has been interpreted as a direct attack on the Indian constitution and all democratic values that exist. The economist Prabhat Patnaik while speaking in front of a strong crowd in JNU: “The clampdown upon the JNU and other universities is the beginning of an insurrection against the Indian constitution.”

The series of attack on university spaces and campus politics is the direct result of Sangh Parivar’s ideas of education. It conceptualises universities and schools as pliant spaces which can take forward the ideology of Hindu nationalism. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his ilk have many a times categorically states that students are meant to study peacefully and should remain within the confines of their classrooms. This primitive idea inherently positions itself in opposition to education in liberal democracies. In most democracies, universities are thought of as vibrant, organic spaces which can generate ideas. Ideas can then be contested, argued and measured. Students experiment with politics and issues that they think are important. Naturally, they become critical spaces. Universities are not meant to be an extension of the ideology espoused by the government of the day.

The NDA government, through a series of attack on students’ politics, has made itself amply clear that they want universities to be labour-producing factories for corporates instead of dynamic spaces that contribute ideas for nation-building. The thrust on higher education reforms, systematic withdrawal of funds, and a gradual transformation of the syllabi points towards a more corporate-communal idea of higher education.

This brings us to two contesting ideas of nationalism – one pushed by the Sangh Parivar and the other espoused by the academic community comprising teachers and students who believe in education as effecting positive changes in Indian society. At the root of it is a fight between the neo-liberal variant of nationalism and the socialist, or let us say, welfarist ideas of nationalism. The NDA II government clearly views higher education as a platform which can push Sangh Parivar’s agenda of Hindu Nationalism and at the same time assist the big corporates who come to the developing world looking for cheap uncritical labour. The attacks on the universities should be looked in this context. The universities in independent India were primarily visualised within the dynamics of Nehruvian socialism as inclusive and critical spaces. They were accepted as free spaces unburdened by the concerns of the powerful. As a result, a vibrant political culture evolved over a period of time. ‘Study and Struggle’ and later ‘Struggle to Study and Study to Change Society’ became the motto of higher education institutes.

Over a period of time when money and muscle power began to influence students’ politics, universities like JNU and HCU remained one of the few resistant forces and repositories of critical ideas. The NDA II government clearly thinks that such spaces need to be contained first. The JNU crackdown reflects this programmatic vision of the NDA-II regime. In what can be called as a direct fascist attack on students in the garb of nationalism, the Modi government clearly perceives the students as its biggest threat. The sedition charges on students is not just a political tactic on the part of Modi government to intimidate democratic voices across the country but also a programmatic attack to hound communists – much like the Indonesian dictator Suharto.

These are the threats we must resist with our strongest voices before our country gets divided on communal lines. We dare not think of such attacks only as an offensive on students or civil rights activists. Such clampdowns have to be seen as a archetypal fascist attack on all the democratic values we have earned through all these years of struggle. Let us not allow the Sangh Parivar to monopolise the idea of nationalism. Let us tell them, only those who stand with the crores of poor people are true nationalists. Let the stop those forces which want to take India back to the darkness of feudalism and Brahminism.

Box 1

Sanghi Hypocrisy vs Patriotism

It is a badge of honour to be called ‘anti-national’ by the RSS and BJP – because for them ‘nationalism’ means hatred – for minorities, for people of neighbouring countries, for the rights and freedom of Dalits and women, for equality. Whereas the true patriots are those who care for the people and struggle for their rights – and it is these true patriots – the Bhagat Singhs and Ambedkars of today who educate, organize and agitate – who are branded as ‘anti-national’ by the RSS and BJP.

Who is truly doing ‘Bharat ki barbadi’ (destruction of India)? Who is breaking India into pieces (Bharat ke tukde)? When Modi Ministers divide India into ‘Ramzade and Haramzade’ (followers of Ram and bastards); when the RSS and BJP divide India into those who eat beef and those who do not; when they brand Hindu-Muslim love affairs as ‘jehad’; when they uphold the Manusmriti and hail Ranveer Sena killers of Dalits as heroes, are they not ‘dividing India into a 1000 pieces’?

The RSS never participated in the freedom struggle; Atal Bihari Vajpayee was an informer for the British; Savarkar begged pardon thrice from the British. The RSS hated the tricolor, and never flew the tricolour for 52 years after Independence. The RSS wanted Manusmriti to be India’s Constitution.

It is those who resist the RSS and BJP, and fight for the rights of peasants and workers, women and Dalits, minorities and adivasis, students and youth who are the real patriots of this country.

Box 2

Slogans Are Not Sedition

Sedition is a Political Tool That Should Be Scrapped

In India, the sedition law is widely and loosely used by Governments to harass and brand political opponents as ‘anti-national.’ In recent years there have been no convictions under this law – the conviction of Binayak Sen by a lower court in Raipur was a sole exception. The purpose of the law is not to secure a conviction but to chill and punish free speech and dissent.

In the Kedar Nath Singh v State of Bihar (1962), a five-Judge Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court read down Section 124A, stating that its operation was limited only to activities involving “incitement to violence or intention or tendency to create public disorder or cause disturbance of public peace”.

In Balwant Singh And Anr vs State of Punjab , Supreme Court held that the casual raising of the Slogans like Khalistan Zindabad etc once or twice by two individuals alone cannot be said to be aimed at exciting or attempt to excite hatred or disaffection towards the Government as established by law in India.
In Bilal Ahmed Kaloo v. State of Andhra Pradesh Supreme Court warned the Courts against the casual approach in invoking this section. It is held that ‘mechanical order convicting a citizen for offences of such serious nature like sedition and to promote enmity and hatred etc. does harm to the cause. It is expected that graver the offence, greater should be the care taken so that the liberty of a citizen is not lightly interfered with.’

The above verdicts make the legal position very clear – slogans are not sedition, neither are articles or opinions or ideological positions sedition.
Yet, in recent years, those accused of sedition include editors and journalists, cartoonists, and activists – for exposing starvation or communal/caste violence, criticizing the Government, or having Marxist or Maoist political ideology.

Take the case of Kahturam Sunani, an Odisha-based journalist, with OTV, who was charged with sedition in May 2007 for filing a report that Pahariya tribals were consuming ‘soft’ dolomite stones in Nuapada district due to acute hunger. Or Aseem Trivedi the cartoonist accused of sedition based on a cartoon. Or Lenin Kumar, editor, Nishan, in 2008 for publishing a booklet titled ‘Kandhamal’s rivers of blood.’ Or scientist, PUCL and AIPWA activist E Rati Rao in Karnataka in 2010 for an article in Varthapatra, a journal edited by her, alleging fake encounter deaths in Karnataka. Or Niranjan Mahapatra, Avinash Kulkarni, Bharat Pawar, and other trade union leaders and social activists in Gujarat, and Sudhir Dhawale, journalist and Dalti rights activist in Maharashtra, for alleged Maoist links.

Clearly, the sedition law is a convenient tool to target, harass and defame anyone whose activism is inconvenient to the Government! Note that those who have actually incited violence – such as BJP and RSS and Shiv Sena leaders in riots – have never been charged with sedition! Neither have the BJP leaders who were named by Ranveer Sena men as having funded the banned outfit that conducted Dalit massacres in Bihar.

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