Nationalism has always been a complex and debatable issue in India. This word has been (mis) used by both the Left and Right in today’s distraught political discourse to advance their own specific ideology. But in its purest sense, nationalism has nothing to do with ideology but everything to do with national interest — something long was forgotten. Today, one’s patriotism is other’s prejudice.
Through this paper, the authors are questioning the prevailing idea of nationalism, while separating the state from the nation. They talk about the Right to the Freedom of Speech and Expression, it’s exploitation using Sedition Laws, and aim to call out those who impose their idea of nationalism on others and warn the rebels of the dire consequences that will follow their treacherous and seditious act. The authors believe that democracy and nationalism are not antonyms and should not be treated as one.
February 9, 2016; Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. A group of students protests against the hanging of Afzal Guru, allegedly raising anti-India slogans. “Anti-Nationals”, labelled screaming TV anchors on prime-time shows, “terrorists”, quoted news headlines. On that night, India was introduced to a new term, and forced to familiarise with it through constant conditioning, unknown of the fact that in coming times, the same term will be used by the jingoists to incite violence and hatred among citizens belonging to contrary beliefs, by labelling those speaking against their “beloved” government as “anti-nationals.”
It has been more than 2 years ever since. Many colloquial terms and certified labelling came and left, however, ‘anti-national’ has been a constant. There is no doubt that modern day India — or BJP’s India — practices hardcore nationalism. Someone’s idea of a liberal, plural and non-supremacist patriotism is always overshadowed by their idea of a socio-cultural and unhealthy nationalism. “Oh, you don’t like this policy of the government, you are an anti-national.” “Oh, you think that India still needs to work a lot in poverty eradication, you need to look at Pakistan and compare.”
And, unfortunately, or perhaps forcibly, we’ve come to a time where having progressive ideas for the country and thinking for the welfare of the people is, allegedly and apparently, anti-nationalism. To the self-certified 21st century nationalists, unless or until you prove your nationalism verbally, probably by chanting slogans that prove so, you’ll always be an anti-national. Therefore, it becomes important to separate the state from the nation.
It has been almost 4 decades since emergency. “Indira is India, and India is Indira” has surprised everyone with a comeback in the form of “Modi’s India, and Modi is India.” Nation and government have been made synonymous and put on the same level once again, and “anti-national” and “anti-government” is being used interchangeably, with the former often replacing the latter. If we go by the taxonomy established by the current government’s well-wishers, if you and I don’t go on to advocate the achievements of our government, or happen to criticise them for their faulty policies, if you and I do not hate Pakistan, or if we raise our voices for the rights of the marginalised people, you and I are anti-nationals. Because, apparently and unsurprisingly, the government is the nation to them. “We, the people,” aren’t.
Anyone who happens to criticise the government’s policies, assuming this is their right to do so as provided by the Constitution of India — the brainchild of the liberal, progressive and secular philosophy of Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, is labelled as anti-national, by the certifying authorities like the ABVP, Bajrang Dal and other unconstitutional and unrecognised outfits, who can proudly boast of doing the same in the case of Jawaharlal Nehru University and Hyderabad Central University back then in 2016. Going by their eligibility criteria, even the opposition’s right to exercise their constitutional duty of maintaining the checks and balances in the government awards them their rightfully earned “anti-national” certificate.
Sedition or the act of inciting people to rebel against the authority of a state of the monarch is a crime in India, one that is punishable with imprisonment for life. Treason or the crime of betraying one’s country by attempting to overthrow or kill the government or the sovereign is punishable under the Indian Penal Code and under acts pertaining to national security.
On the other hand, having unpatriotic views and beliefs and propagating them peacefully is a right guaranteed to the citizens by the Constitution of India. Today, in the Republic of India, sedition is considered a crime — although it ought not to be one in our constitutional order. So, who decides whether an act is anti-national and amounts to sedition or not? Who gets to decide if the slogans were raised against the government or against the nation as a whole? Are our voices against the actions of the government or are we conspiring to bring our nation to its death?
The state believes in nipping the bud of rebellion quickly and with a heavy hand, to stamp it out before it spreads to menacing proportions. It believes in booking singers under the charge of sedition for singing against the government, it believes in lodging complaints against writers, actors and cartoonists, students and activists as they seem to “threaten” the peace of our country. What all of these have in common is that their acts do not remotely threaten the state or the established government, neither is there anything that incites violence; what made them criminals were these powerful political figures who misused Section 124A in their favour. It is said that if a law is likely to be misused, then it is an arbitrary law and it is the citizens of India that are suffering due to such arbitrariness. The government of free India has used this law more than the Britishers.
As Emilia Durkheim said, “laws and punishments are never about individual crimes. They are made to further social solidarity and to make us speak as one and collaborate against public wrongs. But once that punishment loses its value, for example through excessive criminalisation, it becomes ineffective as a medium to achieve social solidarity, and the state that engages in such practices does not enable order or unity; it risks both.”
It is unfortunate for the fate of the country when students are detained for speaking up, educational institutions are blamed for propagating anti-national ideologies, teachers, authors and other public intellectuals are attacked — and in some extreme cases, killed — for nurturing liberal and secular values, human rights activists are jailed for advocating the rights of the marginalised and the exploited ones, and journalists are killed for doing justice to the citizens’ Right to Information. Now the question that arises, makes one think, who is the ‘nation’? Is the government the ‘nation’? Or the students, the teachers, the tribals, the marginalised, the authors, the writers, the journalists, the “citizens” are the ‘nation’? The answer is right there in front of us.
Election propaganda run with agendas, supported by an entire team of professionals working on the same. Social media has become one such weapon for those in power to run their politically charged and motivated agendas, targeting audiences through their algorithms, often spreading hatred to mislead the citizens and putting those who speak up their minds on target of someone’s gunpoint. What happened to Gauri Lankesh? What crime did Shujaat Bukhari commit? That they held a view, a view different from yours, or that they spoke for the people?
A new trend is in play nowadays, and with it comes a new labelling: Urban Naxal. Started by a random filmmaker who happened to write a book on the same, propagated by those sharing the same opinions, and later stretched to an extent that today, anyone expressing their opinion on twitter or other social media platforms to call out the culprits, convicts, misogynists, hardcore jingoists, religious nationalists, and expecting good from the government is an ‘Urban Naxal,’ as named by the aforesaid taxonomists. After this nomenclature, every student today is an urban naxal. Every activist is an urban naxal. Every socialist is an urban naxal. Every professor, teacher, the educator is an urban naxal. Even every comedian is an urban naxal, because the taxonomists didn’t like their jokes. So, by any chance, if you happen to believe that your opinion also holds a space and acceptance in this nation today, then my friend, congratulations! You’re not only an anti-national, but also an urban naxal.
One would say in the defence of the government that they are not the ones propagating these values of hatred and aren’t nurturing the ideology of hardcore majoritarian nationalism. But, the same government is responsible for not speaking against those who do, the same government is not calling people out for their rigid chauvinism, and them using sedition laws against activists in Maharashtra recently proves their stand on the same.
It is the same government that is not willing to project the difference between anti-government and anti-national to the common people, for they enjoy all the perks resulting from people’s lack of information about it. Their silence speaks louder than their actions. Governments suppressing people’s voices isn’t new to India. As Mahatma Gandhi said in 1922, “Section 124-A, under which I have been happily charged, is perhaps the prince among the political sections of the Indian Penal Code designed to suppress the liberty of the citizen.”
What happened to the culture of open discussions in the Gurukula between teachers, debates adorned by the enthusiasm of the students, or the symposiums attended by the far-left and far-right intellectuals, and the free space for expression? A young student gets arrested and labelled a “terrorist” for speaking against Tamil Nadu’s BJP chief. Adivasi activist teachers get arrested for reading Mao, Lenin and Stalin. Historians are abused on platforms for presenting truth that somehow differs from the beliefs of the majority class, sect or community.
Historian Romila Thapar talks about justifying one’s bias. She encourages people to read her allegedly biased take on history, and explore someone else’s take, if one’s not convinced enough, and then decide for themselves. And that, that diversity and acceptance, is the beauty of this surprisingly diverse nation. The problem isn’t with one government or one party, the problem is with all the successive governments when they are backed by numbers in the house, when they start drifting towards fascism, when they try to ignore the role of the opposition, when they try to use sedition laws to favour themselves, or when they tend to become “the nation”. If one’s alternative take on something won’t be paid attention to, then the idea of “debating” is baseless. There is no role of opposition in the house in that case. There is no need for a 3 or more judges bench in the courts if one opinion is going to rule out the decision.
Another thing that is somehow ignored by almost everyone is the idea of a healthy criticism. One must criticise the government in a healthy way, backing his/her opinion with solid proofs and valid points. And, the government must take the criticism in a healthy way. Believing and advocating something adamantly leaves no space for progress. If I tend to believe that mine is the best nation in terms of healthcare facilities because more children die in Africa than ours, or if I say that we are a safe country for women because the percentage of rapes in our country is less as compared to that of Sweden, then I’ll be fooling myself.
If we, the people of India, won’t criticise ‘our’ government on its fallacies or failed policies, who else is going to provide the checks and balances at the ground level? If the ‘government of the people, by the people, for the people,’ won’t pay heed to the people only, and put them behind bars in the name of anti-national activities for not supporting them, then what remains the credibility of that government? If one starts to believe that theirs is the only beneficial view for the nation or that theirs is the only right way of nationalism, or that they’re the only true patriots, the idea of India shatters and scatters right there.
One must not forget that the nation is greater than the government, greater than any form of differences that exist, greater than one’s socio-cultural identity. As Babasaheb B. R. Ambedkar testified the same by quoting — “I don’t want our loyalty as Indians to be in the slightest way affected by any competitive loyalty whether that loyalty arises out of our religion, out of our culture or out of our language. I want all of us to be Indians first, Indian last and nothing else but Indians.”
You may disagree with someone’s ideology, you may not like to advocate a belief contrary to yours, you may not relate to someone’s different view/take on something, you may not appreciate someone who has a completely opposite opinion to yours, but, ideally, you and the other person are entitled with the same fundamental rights. The same right that gives you an opportunity to hold and put forth an opinion, acknowledges the other person’s right to be able to do the same. Your right to fully express and advocate your opinion can never be greater than someone’s Right to Life. Opinions, ideas, views and beliefs are meant to be discussed, debated, and expressed. After all, the diversity in opinions, philosophies, ideas, views and beliefs is what constitutes this nation.
In a secular and diverse country like India, one specific belief, opinion, or any other socio-cultural or economic identity cannot claim a majority and try to define and implement their idea of nationalism on others, backed by a strong socio-cultural identity. India’s nationalism should have only one basis: Indianness. Indianness, where no one identity cannot stake a claim or superiority over another. Indianness, that “we, the people” share without any possible variations in its concentration. This is the beauty of India. This is the beauty of Indian democracy. As former Prime Minister Shri Atal Bihari Vajpayee quoted in the lower house at the end of his resignation speech, “Governments will come and go, parties will be formed and dismissed, but this country shall stay immortal, this country’s democracy shall stay immortal.”
Writer, Sanchit Toor & Tanya Aror, Amity University, Noida.