Definitions, American poet Toni Morrison once wrote, belong to the definer not the defined.
Definitions, American poet Toni Morrison once wrote, belong to the definer not the defined. Implicit in her formulation is an acknowledgment that those who define are usually the powerful who use their power to name primarily for their self-interest. In the last one week, we have seen a shrill and divisive rhetoric emerge which quickly divides people as nationalists and anti-nationalists. From politicians who have not hesitated to brand an entire university anti-nationalist to zealous vigilante lawyers willing to insult the constitution to prove their nationalist credentials, and TV anchors acting as self-appointed custodians of patriotism who confuse reporting with witch hunts. If these are the ‘definers’ of our times, perhaps it is time to look a little further back in history to search for authorities who carry a greater moral force.
In contrast to the knee-jerk declaration that any criticism of the government or the state is necessarily seditious speech, let’s not forget that Mahatma Gandhi had been tried under the same provision (Sec. 124-A) in 1921 for an article that he had published in Young India. In his statement on March 18, 1922 before Judge Broomfield, Gandhiji famously asserted: “Section 124-A, under which I am happily charged, is perhaps the prince among the political sections of the Indian Penal Code designed to suppress the liberty of the citizen. Affection cannot be manufactured or regulated by law. If one has no affection for a person or system, one should be free to give the fullest expression to his disaffection, so long as he does not contemplate, promote, or incite violence.”
Gandhi was prescient in his sharp legal understanding of the provision and it is not surprising that his interpretation of the law is what the Supreme Court in the postcolonial context has also reiterated, consistently holding that mere words and criticism do not qualify for sedition and it has to be accompanied by an incitement to imminent violence. Gandhi’s suggestion that affection cannot be manufactured or regulated by law hints that if it is indeed genuine affection that one strives for, it can only be won through a process of genuine dialogue, to understand the cause for discontentment and to address that discontentment. Just as it was easier for the British to label Gandhi’s writings seditious rather than address the substantive concerns he was raising, it appears that rather than understanding the demands for justice and equality raised by JNU students, it is much easier to label them anti-nationalist. If the question is who we should trust, Mahatma Gandhi or Arnab Goswami, hopefully the answer should be abundantly clear.
Much of the public anger that has been fuelled against the alleged incidents in JNU have been produced through a combination of convenient misreporting and wilful obfuscation by the definers. But ignoring the lumpen definers for now, it is a fact that even if the reporting is fake, the sense of hurt or anger of ordinary people is genuine. But what exactly is the cause of this indignation Much of nationalism plays itself out on the symbolic register (the national anthem, the national flag etc) and in the world of media frenzy, it has become easy to whip up sentiments purely through an appeal to symbolic indignation.
But what if there is also a substantive political domain which does not reside easily within the symbolic theatre of nationalism and yet remains crucial to an ethical imagination of democracy Philosophers have argued that presumptions of the social contract are always subject to repudiation through the withdrawal of consent. The withdrawal of one’s consent is not necessarily a nihilistic rejection of the world, but a dispute that one has about its content. It is both possible and reasonable to reject society as it stands (because it is unfaithful to what you have consented to) while still consenting to a conversation about the horizon of possibilities of this society. This is in effect the domain of substantive politics, where often questions of constitutional values and promises are at stake. It is also the domain where free speech plays a crucial role, for, how can one have a conversation if not guaranteed the freedom to do so
And there is no better person to illustrate this than Rabindranath Tagore. Tagore, despite being the "national" poet and the author of the anthem, was himself highly critical of nationalism especially in its overt forms, and retained in his writings and his significant lectures on nationalism, the sovereignty of an individual's political and ethical views. Ramachandra Guha describes Tagore as a patriot who was not quite a nationalist and as someone who was dismayed by the “xenophobic tendencies of the nationalist movement”. Tagore's universalism came out of a civilisational confidence and seems to be in sharp contrast with the knee-jerk responses of indignation whenever anyone expresses their dissent. Some of Tagore’s works were written in the backdrop of the rise of ultra nationalism and fascism in Europe as well as use of the discourse of terrorism in Bengal to label anti-colonial actors. In his book on the philosophy of Tagore, Kalyan Sengupta argues that while Tagore had no sympathy for nationalism, he was a patriot, and for Tagore, ‘nationalism’ and ‘patriotism’ were not synonymous. Nationalism was a ‘political demon’ for Tagore, while patriotism “means a love of one’s country and commitment to its traditions which aims at social cohesion and encourages communication, consensus and fruitful interchange”.
Tagore’s invocation of love and Gandhi’s invocation of affection would reject the chest-thumping declarations of symbolic nationalism and return us to a domain of affective politics in which one can express one’s love for a land in myriad ways including being seditious. It is no surprise that the root word for the word “fond” comes from “ground,” and there can perhaps be no common ground on which we can stand, no collective ideal that we can imagine, if it’s not founded on an idea of gentle affection of this kind. This is the form of passionate dwelling that will guarantee that India remains the land of Gandhi and Tagore, rather than Arnab Goswami.
JNU and anti-nationalism Event: February 12, 2016 — JNU Students Union president Kanhaiya Kumar arrested in a sedition case over a meeting on Afzal Guru hanging anniversary at which some elements allegedly raised anti-national slogans.
Complaint registered under IPC Sections 124-A (sedition), 120-B (criminal conspiracy) and 34 (acts done by several persons with common intention).
Rajnath’s role: Police arrests Kanhaiya Kumar after videos of alleged protest go viral. Home Minister Rajnath Singh speaks to Delhi Police Commissioner B. S. Bassi and releases a statement: “If anyone raises anti-India slogans, tries to raise questions on the country’s unity and integrity, they will not be spared.” Rajnath Singh alleges that JNU students had the backing of Jamaat-ud-Dawah chief Hafiz Saeed.
Mob attack: February 14, mob in gown slaps and kicks supporters of Kanhaiya Kumar on the Patiala House Courts premises just before Kumar is scheduled to appear before metropolitan magistrate Loveleen. Journalists and students beaten up; BJP MLA O. P. Sharma seen beating up a CPI worker outside the court’s gate number 4.
O. P Sharma’s says: “The problem of this country is that terrorism and being anti-national are considered being progressive. And JNU is promoting this kind of ideology and producing anti-nationals. JNU should be sealed.”
Mute police: February 15, violence breaks out again in the Patiala House Courts complex. Delhi Police stands as “silent spectators” as attackers defy SC’s order for restricted entry to court complex and beat up Kumar en route to his hearing. Attackers also hurl abuse, gravel and a flowerpot piece at a six-member team of senior advocates, sent by SC to verify and report on the ground situation.
Major campus rows Event: January 17, 2016 — Research scholar Rohith Vemula hangs himself at the University of Hyderabad’s hostel room.
What led to suicide: Vemula, 26, was among five research scholars suspended by HCU in August last year over alleged assault of ABVP leader. Union Minister Bandaru Dattatreya (BJ) writes to HRD minister Smriti Irani, describing the university as a “den of casteist, extremist and anti-national politics” and follows up with five reminders. Vemula’s scholarship suspended and he is banned from the hostel.
Protests: HCU students’ joint action committee calls suicide “institutional murder”; Opposition slams NDA government for “anti-Dalit agenda, mindset”.
An umbrella organisation of the university launches indefinite strike for resignation of vice-chancellor Appa Rao. Vemula’s mother joins protest on campus.
Students of the FTII in Pune and Mumbai University join in protests.
Centre’s take: Centre blames Congress for politicising issue, says suicide had nothing to do with Dattatreya’s letter to Irani.
Irani said, “Don’t want to make political statement. My condolences to family of deceased. Government doesn’t intervene in the administration of universities.”
IIT-M against Dalits Event: May 24, 2015 — Indian Institute of Technology Madras kicks up row by derecognising Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle, many of whose members are dalits.
Reason: Anonymous complaint received by the Union HRD ministry says APSC tried to mobilise SC/ST students and spread “hatred” towards Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Undersecretary Prisca Mathew writes to director on May 15, seeking “comments of the institute” to the complaint.
APSC alleges it was targeted for opposing caste discrimination, Hindi imposition and beef ban.
What happened: Students strike and hundreds arrested; protests spread to other parts of the country with NSUI and major organisations taking up the cause.
Who to blame: Union HRD Minster Smriti Irani blamed for the institute’s decision.
End: June 7, 2015 IIT-M restores recognition of APSC after meeting between the Dean of Students and APSC.
FTII imbroglio Event: June 12, 2015 — Film and Television Institute of India students launch indefinite strike in protest against the information and broadcast ministry appointing small-time TV actor-turned-politician Gajendra Chauhan as chairman. Later, students launch relay hunger strike.
Opposition: Students question Mr Chauhan’s “creative credentials”.
The appointment of Chauhan, who played Yudhishtira in TV series Mahabharata and acted in ‘B’ grade Bollywood movies, and the reconstitution of FTII governing council with four RSS leaders as members, seen as BJP-led Centre’s attempt to foist rightwing agenda on the institute.
Students and film fraternity fear for institute’s autonomy.
12 filmmakers, including documentary maker Anand Patwardhan, and Bollywood director Dibakar Banerjee, return national awards.
Action: At least nine rounds of formal and informal talks were held between the ministry and students
End: Students call off strike after 139 days on October 28 and return to classes though in protest.
Lawrence Liang is a Bengaluru-based legal researcher and lawyer