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  Opinion   Oped  15 Oct 2019  To fight structural violence of sedition, (dis)loyalty is a virtue

To fight structural violence of sedition, (dis)loyalty is a virtue

The writer teaches criminal law and feminist theory at the Indian Law Institute, New Delhi.
Published : Oct 15, 2019, 1:16 am IST
Updated : Oct 15, 2019, 1:16 am IST

Nations, nationalisms and nation states are held together by building bonds of allegiance and solidarity, and then commanding loyalty.

Such pedestalisation of loyalty leads to the normalisation of cruelty.  (Photo: PTI | Representational)
 Such pedestalisation of loyalty leads to the normalisation of cruelty. (Photo: PTI | Representational)

The FIR filed (now quashed) against the signatories of the open letter to the Prime Minister has, once again, taken us to the debate around sedition. Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code punishes (maximum punishment being life imprisonment) any words, either spoken or written, signs, visible representations that can cause “hatred or contempt” or excite or attempt to excite “disaffection” towards the government. “Disaffection” here includes “disloyalty and all feelings of enmity”. This section of the penal code has been rightly critiqued by legal scholars and human rights groups for its vague and over-broad language, and the chilling effect it seeks to create, threatening the constitutional right of freedom of expression. In expunging dissent and criticism of the government, it also prevents citizens from exercising their fundamental duties of following the “ideals which inspired our national struggle for freedom” and developing “the spirit of inquiry and reform”. For it was Mahatma Gandhi, whose 150th birth anniversary is being celebrated with huge pomp and show from left to right, from Nagpur to New York, who had termed the provision “the prince among the political sections of the Indian Penal Code designed to suppress the liberty of the citizen”.

Nations, nationalisms and nation states are held together by building bonds of allegiance and solidarity, and then commanding loyalty. Sedition regulates this psychic economy of a citizen’s relationship with the State. One is bound to feel and spread love for the nation, not “hatred”, accolade, not “contempt”, affection, not “disaffection”. Here, it must be stated that right-wing governments with “fascist tendencies” are not the only ones that use sedition (or sedition-like provisions) to silence dissenting voices. Liberal democratic systems desire loyalty as much, and with a virtuous self-righteousness, as the illiberal, majoritarian ones. It was not an aberration that the mass-scale use of sedition against the peaceful Kudankulam protestors happened in the UPA period, and it was the Obama administration that declared Edward Snowden a traitor.


The hegemonic power of loyalty is so ingrained and pervasive that even the dissenters often defend themselves by claiming the distinction between “government” and “nation”, or as Snowden did, between “government” and “public”. So even in dissent they claim they are loyal to the (abstract idea of) nation/public/state. Thus, even as the dissenters, critics and progressive judicial authorities critique the penal provision of sedition, we hardly ever hear any criticism of the sentiment of loyalty which is at the heart of sedition.

Loyalty is mostly, if not inherently, exclusionary. It demands allegiance to “one’s own” — your own family, community, organisation, nation — for the circular reason that they are one’s own. It demands uncritical love for “one’s own”, not on account of their goodness, nor because these bonds are forged on amity and love, but because they are insiders — they are not “them”. In other words, loyalty preserves the familial at the cost of justice. Even if “our” community is acting unjustly, “we” must nevertheless be loyal towards it. Loyalty being premised on the “us” versus “them” narrative lacks the power to arrest the cycles of violence that arise from the collective hatred for a common enemy.


Such pedestalisation of loyalty leads to the normalisation of cruelty. By claiming itself as an uncontested virtue, loyalty trumps over the much more significant values of truthfulness, empathy and a sense of fairness and justness. The social and political institutions sustain themselves through effective emotional governance where individuals are socialised into loyal subjecthood, which means numbing them against the moral obligation of speaking up and calling out the follies as well as cruelties of “one’s own”. Patriarchal institutions especially thrive on loyalty as individuals are socialised into the hierarchy of emotions under the broad umbrella of loyalty. We learn to accept, if not approve, patriarchal authority. Loyalty translates into institutional apathy for sexual harassment complaints and many other grievances which are seen as bringing disrepute to the organisation. We remain silent when our “own” people are involved in sexism, domestic violence or corruption. Women are brought up to remain loyal to their husbands even if they routinely abuse them. Children must not “snitch” even when they are abused by parents, relatives and family friends. And so on. In other words, (misplaced) loyalty and its corollary, (uncritical) love, allow the structural violence of family, marriage, community and nation to continue with impunity, as we all get enfolded in these oppressive institutions.


Arresting this violence requires us to inculcate the strength to dare to be disloyal, unapologetic, a dissenter in the wake of individual and collective, legal as well as psychic investment in the idea of loyalty. The face of the world would look very different if loyalty is no longer seen as the ultimate human emotion and, at times, we teach the virtues of being disloyal, especially if it is the question of being just and when uncritical allegiance makes us complicit with violence. No doubt it will be a more unpredictable, uncertain and less stable world. But the freedom to assert disloyalty will also make compelling ethical demands on individual decision-making, enhancing the possibility of building honest, though precarious, bonds of relationality.


Tags: sedition