These days, it is difficult to differentiate between news and noise. It becomes even more complex given the rapid spread of news through social media and the internet, especially when it lacks verified sources.
The recent events at the JNU campus have arrested the attention of the nation. A cultural event was organized at JNU to protest against the ‘judicial killing’ of a pair of convicted terrorists, Afzal Guru and Maqbool Bhat. And this is not the first time such an event was organized – it has reportedly been organized for 3 years now, on the death anniversary of Afzal Guru. Some people, in the course of this ‘cultural event’, shouted anti-India slogans like ‘Bharat ki barbaadi tak, jang rahegi, jang rahegi’ and ‘India go back’. Within days, the JNU Students’ Union (JNUSU) President was arrested for shouting anti-national slogans under the charges of sedition under Section 124-A, although the police remain silent on the issue of whether he actually raised any such slogans. The matter has become heavily politicized after this turn of events.
The organizers of the ‘cultural event’ have claimed that they were merely using their constitutional right of freedom of expression and their right to disagree and have a different opinion, while the Government has claimed the event as anti-national, a glorification of a convicted terrorist, and a secessionist ideology beguiling people under the innocent garb of Leftism and freedom of expression. The Home Minister even went on to claim that the event had the backing of Jamaat-ud-Dawah (JuD) chief Hafiz Saeed. JuD is the philanthropy arm of the terrorist outfit, Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT).
This raises several sensitive and uncomfortable questions. How far can freedom of expression be stretched and what exactly are the ‘reasonable restrictions’ imposed on it? Was the event really anti-national or is that too harsh a label? Was the event seditious? And if the event was not so, were the slogans seditious?
First and foremost, let us be clear and state unhesitatingly that not every statement against the Indian State is anti-national. The State can be, and is, criticized by its citizens, and that is one of the pillars of our democratic foundation. How many times have we claimed in the comfort of our homes ‘Yaar, iss desh ka kuch nahi ho sakta.’? But, let us also be equally clear, if not more so, that anybody talking about the ‘barbaadi’ of India is anti-national and this label is not only justified but even necessary to brand such elements in our society.
Now, who was shouting these slogans? The organizers claim that some Kashmiris from outside the JNU campus raised these slogans. Let us not view this as an impossible claim. In the videos, it seems near impossible to identify the people raising these slogans. The JNUSU President who has been arrested was seen in the video saying pro-India and pro-constitution things in his speech. However, it is undeniable that there were some people in the crowd, even if there were none among the organizers, who harboured an anti-national feeling and a separatist ideology. Branding JNU, however, as anti-national is certainly not warranted.
An organiser, in an interview, claimed that the Supreme Court ruled that they do not have enough evidence to convict Guru but to satisfy the collective conscience of the country they hanged the man. This is a part of the final ruling of the Supreme Court:
“The incident, which resulted in heavy casualties, had shaken the entire nation and the collective conscience of the society will only be satisfied if the capital punishment is awarded to the offender. The challenge to the unity, integrity and sovereignty of India by these acts of terrorists and conspirators, can only be compensated by giving the maximum punishment to the person who is proved to be the conspirator in this treacherous act. The appellant, who is a surrendered militant and who was bent upon repeating the acts of treason against the nation, is a menace to the society and his life should become extinct. Accordingly, we uphold the death sentence.”
Legal experts have however argued that the evidence against him was circumstantial but that is a matter pertaining to a legal debate. But it must be noted here that Afzal Guru had, if nothing, exhausted every legal option. After the special POTA (Prevention of Terrorism Act) sessions court awarded him capital punishment, he filed an appeal in the Delhi High Court. His appeal was rejected and the capital punishment was upheld following which he moved the Supreme Court. After the Supreme Court’s judgement, he filed a review petition, which subsequently upheld the death sentence. Following that, Guru filed a curative petition, which was again heard and which, again, upheld the sentence. After that, he filed a mercy petition with the President of India which was rejected after 8 years, in 2013.
Coming to the question of freedom of expression and sedition, we must remember that the true test of a democracy is to withstand opinions that differ from ours, and may sometimes even be in grave contrast to them. A person may disagree with death penalty. A person may disagree with the Supreme Court’s verdict of the conviction of Afzal Guru as a terrorist, and they’re free to do so and to express their opinion on the matter. A person may even claim that a certain convicted terrorist was not only a hero but is also a martyr. In fact, a person may even leave all that behind and go ahead and claim that they want to witness the destruction of India. And none of those will invoke Section 124-A of the IPC. Talking against a political party in power, the government, the judiciary or even raising anti- India slogans is not necessarily sedition. The Supreme Court, in the Kedar Nath Singh vs. State of Bihar case in 1962, had declared:
“…words and speech can be criminalised and punished only in situations where it is being used to incite mobs or crowds to violent action. Mere words and phrases by themselves, no matter how distasteful, do not amount to a criminal offence unless this condition is met.”
As an example, the Supreme Court acquitted persons who had shouted “Khalistan zindabaad, Raj Karega Khalsa” and, “Hinduan Nun Punjab Chon Kadh Ke Chhadange, Hun Mauka Aya Hai Raj Kayam Karan Da” (Hindus will leave Punjab; this is our chance, we will rule) just hours after the assassination of Indira Gandhi.
This renders any charge of sedition in the given circumstances meaningless. However, Section 124-A, a remnant of the colonial era, has been used by all Governments as a tool to curtail freedom of speech to a certain extent and silence critics. Interestingly, England itself abolished the law in 2009.
It must also be remembered, though, that the government is well within its rights to initiate a probe in the matter if it believes, with reasonable evidence, that there is a threat to the security, as claimed by the Home Minister when he linked the event to a known terrorist organisation. In such a situation, the government should cite proper reasons and furnish evidence to support its claims and go on to make arrests for the appropriate reasons. After all, it is the responsibility of the government to protect its citizens. If the government indeed has intelligence inputs, it must take action, and we must not blow the actions of the government out of proportion. But it must do so under appropriate charges and not under the garb of sedition.
Since we’re talking of Jawaharlal Nehru University, it is apt that the following two statements made by Nehru offer a comprehensive yet concise view of the situation from two opposing but equally important perspectives:
“Where freedom is menaced or justice threatened or where aggression takes place, we cannot be and shall not be neutral.”
“There is nothing more horrifying than stupidity in action.”
Differences in opinions are understandable and even welcome in our society. We do tend to become over-zealous in protecting our own version of the truth at times, and that is natural, but a certain amount of that zeal is healthy. We must remain open to arguments, however contradictory they may seem as long as they are within the bounds of the principles our country was founded on. Debating upon the conviction of a terrorist by the highest court of law of the land is certainly permissible within the boundaries of democracy. Organising an event to protest against the ‘judicial killing’ of convicted terrorists and an expression of solidarity with the Kashmiri people’s right to self-determination is also within the confines of the democracy. However, declaring that a terrorist convicted by the Supreme Court of the nation is a martyr, and going on to proclaim the destruction of the nation they live in, is not something that can be acceptable to any Indian who even remotely loves his country, though it is certainly not seditious in this context. And even then, the people uphold constitutional sovereignty and grant such people their freedom of expression, which is a really tolerant thing for the citizens of this country to do. There will be dissent and there will be anger and certain fringe sections may even resort to violence. The media might blow such things out of proportion, which is not to say that it has. The political parties and the Government may squabble among themselves and politicize the event in different colours and show varied intensities of tolerance for the same. Let us remember though, that neither the media nor the Government and political parties reflect India. Who does, you ask? We, the people.