Sedition and the Gala Festival of Madness – Anuradha Bhasin Jamwal

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Kannada actor-politician Ramya is being attacked for saying Pakistan is "not hell, its people are like us."
Kannada actor-politician Ramya is being attacked for saying Pakistan is “not hell, its people are like us.”

When sedition becomes a favored weapon of the intellectually and morally weak in pursuit of subjugating by intimidation the intellectually strong and the voices of reason, it is not just about threat to individuals who dared to speak but a threat to the very core idea and basis of democracy.

ANURADHA BHASIN JAMWAL

[dropcap]W[/dropcap]ith a sedition case registered, and even more shockingly entertained by the court, against noted Kannada actress Ramya, the frenzy of slapping sedition cases against those dissenting with State’s functionaries has reached a new level of absurdity. Ramya has been booked for responding to the statement of union defense minister Manohar Parrikar.

The latter some days ago said that ‘Pakistan is hell’, not withstanding that some months ago his own prime minister made a surprise visit to that ‘hell’ to celebrate the birthday of the man who presides over that ‘hell’. In response to Parrikar’s sweeping remark, Ramya said that Pakistan was not hell and that she found Pakistanis are a lot like Indians and that during her stay in Pakistan, she was treated very well. To qualify this remark as sedition or as one that creates disaffection against the state makes a mockery of India’s democratic ethos which guarantees freedom of speech to its citizens. The ability to speak and free space for thinking and speaking is the best measure of the quantum of democracy a country enjoys.

When sedition becomes a favoured weapon of the intellectually and morally weak in pursuit of subjugating by intimidation the intellectually strong and the voices of reason, it is not just about threat to individuals who dared to speak but a threat to the very core idea and basis of democracy.

Sedition, a law that has a British imperial legacy, has been liberally used post-independence by governments of the day to vilify their opponents and to crush dissenting voices. Out of power, most political parties talk about scrapping the outdated and draconian law. In power, far from beginning the process of scrapping it, they use it to gag voices that become a threat to their own power.

Needless to point out that the law has already outlived its utility and should have no place in a democratic country as it legitimizes the unleashing of a dangerously divisive polity on basis of those who are in favour of the government of the day and those who oppose it which masquerades as a fight between nationalists and anti-nationals. The present Narendra Modi led BJP government, which makes little secret of its fascist agenda and its penchant for altering the very idea of India and definition of democracy, invokes sedition like a fashionable hat and passes it around with far greater frequency and also embellishes it with far greater venom.

There are neatly bracketed categories for words that must not be spoken, other than those in power themselves. Kashmir is one, Pakistan is another. In the last one month, we have seen a case of sedition slapped against a Kashmiri boy in Madhya Pradesh for liking a Facebook post, another slapped on Amnesty International for organizing a public meeting on sufferers of Kashmir conflict.

The Ramya case, invoked not for the K-word but its Pakistan friendly tone, is not an exception but marks a new low in this series of sedition cases. Since when does praising people of another country or appreciating their hospitality call for an unpatriotic or immoral act? Conversely, since when does endorsing name calling and abusing another country become an epitome of patriotism? If a minister peevishly and chauvinistically decides to call another country ‘hell’, why should such a statement become the arbiter of an officially stamped matrix of morality or ultra-nationalism, defiance against which would not be tolerated.

Ultra-nationalism has become the ultimate virtue and speaking against State’s policies or even minor disagreement, qualifies for a criminal act. If criminal proceedings against defiant dissenters are not enough, the rabid trained goons of the right wing sprout up to shout down, bully, harass and even physically harm the dissenters. The case of Ramya, who bravely said that she would stand by her word and not apologise because such bullying tactics should not be tolerated, is just the latest in series.

She has not only been booked for speaking in a tone different and opposed to a union minister, she is now being hounded and physically attacked by right wing goons. If Parrikar’s word is sacred like a gospel truth, why should Modi not be booked for his friendly overtures with Nawaz Sharief or why should Rajnath Singh and Sushma Swaraj not be booked for their recent visits to Pakistan. The government of the day is elected to power by the citizens to protect the rights of the citizens and ensure that constitutional rights and laws are not abused. However, a new concept of ‘protecting the ruler’s interest’and ‘treating the words of the rulers as more legal and moral than the constitution’ is being skillfully manufactured by the present government.

Clearly, there is a list of things that can be said and cannot be said. Kashmir cannot be uttered without lacing it with ‘miscreant’ or ‘anti-national’ doctrine. Pakistan cannot be spoken about unless it is appended with terrorism or enmity. Minority insecurity cannot be spoken about with invoking radicalization and conversion propaganda. One can however inject liberal doses of ‘love thy gau mata’, ‘the great crime of beef ban’, ‘the virtue of punishing cow eaters’, ‘the nationalism of the ghar wapsi’, ‘how to improve the fertility rate of Hindu women’ and sundry such statements that fall within the specified ambit of this new mantra of morality and patriotic fervor. There is also a list of who can say what. Those in power can say anything and get away with it.

The Hindutva brigades can get away with much of what they say – whether it amounts to subversion of constitution, minority bashing and hate speech. The likes of Zakir Naik would, however, be far greater threats for hate speeches of much less venom. The likes of Aamir Khan would become anti-national solely for expressing their inner-most fear of living in a country where sections of society are becoming extremely intolerant and where the intolerant discourse is being mainstreamed and even packaged in as paradigm of morality and patriotism. The Kashmiris, of course, even the carbon dioxide they release by the second in their involuntarily act of breathing is subversive in nature and deserves to be dealt with a stern hand.

There is a limit to this madness. If it were just absurd, one would have simply dismissed it with a laugh. The disturbing thing is that it damages the core of democracy, leaving only a façade, beneath which the giant of imperial power, absolute power and fascism is becoming more and more alive and stronger.

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