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JNU Row has opened up the debate on freedom of expression verses nationalism- Comment.


"I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to death your right to say it.", said S. G. Tallentyre in the Friends of Voltaire.

The idea of liberty is as historical as the French Revolution that saw the rise of philosophers and free thinkers like Voltaire and Montesquieu. This idea has broadened in its use what we see as the fundamental right of freedom of speech and expression that is inherent component of a democracy.

In the context of India Freedom Struggle, the concept of free speech and expression played a major role in attaining Independence. The writings, the short stories, poems, articles, press reports both in English and vernacular languages helped in mobilization of public opinion due to which the British was forces to level charges of 'sedition' upon many of the eminent nationalists, more specifically Mahatma Gandhi, thrice on Tilak, Annie Besant and other stalwarts of freedom struggle.

The law of sedition came into picture post the revolt of 1857 and in the wake of Wahabi movement when the British Crown found it necessary to curtail mass mobilization of people. It stated that anyone who tries to spread "disaffection" towards the government would be liable to imprisonment, with or without fine.

Post-Independence, this draconian law despite being rendered unconstitutional by High Courts in two cases was still kept as section 124A of the Indian Penal Code. Ever since, we have seen misuse of this highly serious and severe charge by various governments in power.

A person charged with sedition is often termed as anti-national as the government in power sees him in their context of nationalism. What is to be understood is the difference between being "anti-national" and "anti-government".

Freedom to criticize, debate and dissent is also an essential constituent of Freedom of speech and expression. Students and intellectuals form an eminent part of these debates. Discussions on various issues either it may be land acquisition by neo liberal regimes, caste system, corruption, sexual harassment, gender discrimination, budgets, anti-labor policies, environmental degradation etc. are all part of the academic culture, more specifically the JNU in its 50 odd year history. These debates, sloganeering, strikes, agitations, street plays constitute the basic fabric of the most liberal space in the country. But sudden invocation of the sedition law on these activities provides a stark reminder to the sheer depravity of one of our antiquated, colonial-era laws.

Indian Nationalism was always liberal in nature. The longest constitution in the world was formed on consensus basis rather than majority basis. Also, every aspect except the universal suffrage was debated upon in the Constituent Assembly. Even the signature movement was to expel British without hatred. The formation of a secular India in the face of Muslim Pakistan was a remarkable monument to the national sentiment. Hence, when the generations, who have been brought up witnessing all such aspects of India, are termed "anti-national", it raises some serious questions on the attitude of the government and many even tend to question the existence of such a draconian law that is seen as a "play thing" in the hands of the government.

Nationalism demands dialogue. Any issue in the country has to be solved by public debates, discussions and opinions. Nations flourish when they instill in its citizen a sense of belongingness and meaning to their diversity. It should provide for extending inclusive character and democratizing hierarchies otherwise it would be within "Nationalism without a nation".

An important part of education particularly higher education, is to learn to ask questions and develop the capacity for disobedience and reasoned arguments. How unfortunate is the nation which has only obedient, conformist minds as its youth, who fight only for placements with fat pay packets and are ready to turn their cogs and wheels of machinery which turns profit for few and crushes the rest of humanity?

The spirit of dissent and debate refuses to be subsumed under the simple minded idea of mediocre nationalism of the current dispension that wishes away every difference of opinion and perceives it as "Bharat Ma Ka Apmaan".

To conclude, it is to be understood that to argue against sedition does not tantamount to arguing in favor of unlimited free speech. The words which directly provoke violence or threaten the maintenance of public order deserve censure is unquestionable but sedition is not that it seeks to achieve. It is a devastating disposition to the ruling dispension. Its continued use may have effects of chilling free speech and expression in India.

-Neda Fatima