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Do we have a clear idea as to what is anti-national?

columns Updated: Mar 06, 2016 08:43 IST
Rohith Vemula

Kanhaiya Kumar is under scanner since last month for the alleged anti-national sloganeering in the JNU campus.(Sanjeev Verma/ HT Photo)

Last month’s parliamentary debate on Rohith Vemula and JNU and last week’s comments by the judge who granted Kanhaiya Kumar bail raise a surprising question: Do we have a clear idea about what is anti-national and what is not? I don’t think so. We have strong positions on either side but passion clouds our judgement, leaving us more confused than certain.

This should become clear when you focus on two subsidiary questions: First, is it anti-national to publicly criticise the Supreme Court for its decision to hang Afzal Guru? Venkaiah Naidu says it is. P Chidambaram says it’s not.

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The answer hinges on whether the Supreme Court can be wrong. You only have to recall the terrible habeas corpus decision of 1976, which the Court later reversed and for which Justice PN Bhagwati personally apologised, to know the Court is not infallible. The Court is supreme because it’s final, not because it’s always right. That being the case, in a democracy every citizen has the right to criticise its judgements. It’s not anti-national to do so.

There is, however, a thin line you mustn’t cross. Whilst it’s perfectly acceptable to criticise the Court’s decisions you remain bound by them even when you disagree. You cannot defy them. Nor should you attribute motives. That could be contempt of court.

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This means students criticising the Supreme Court for hanging Afzal Guru were not anti-national to do so. It may have been distasteful, even offensive, but not anti-national. Also, if I understand Fali Nariman correctly, anti-Indian (i.e. anti-national) isn’t a crime and it certainly isn’t sedition. That’s what he wrote in the Indian Express on the 17th of February.

Now, let’s come to a second and more controversial aspect of what is anti-national and what is not. Is it anti-national to demand or campaign peacefully for secession? In this case most people might instinctively say it is. They’re wrong.

In his maiden speech in the Rajya Sabha on the 1st of May 1962, CN Annadurai demanded self-determination for Dravidians and “a separate country for southern India”. It wasn’t considered anti-national at the time. Why, then, is it anti-national today to talk of azadi for Kashmir?

If the Scottish Nationalists in Britain, the Parti Quebecois in Canada or the Catalans in Spain can campaign for secession and be considered respectable and not anti-national, doesn’t that suggest mature enlightened democracies don’t consider a call for secession anti-national? And isn’t that what we, in India, should aspire to as well?

Artists from Moradabad pay tributes to the Dalit scholar Rohith Vemula, who committed suicide at the Hyderabad Central University. (PTI File)

In 1995, in the Balwant Singh case, the Supreme Court ruled that the slogan ‘Khalistan zindabad’ was not seditious. That judgment also applies to students proclaiming Pakistan zindabad or azadi for Kashmir.

Frankly, these examples should lead to a more fundamental concern with nationalism. Surely the time has come to accept that all Indians are patriotic and to stop branding those we disagree with as anti-national?

In western democracies people are wary of the advocacy of nationalism. They see it as a ploy for pushing authoritarianism and intolerance. I suspect that’s equally true of the way we misuse the concept in India.

Way back in 1775 Samuel Johnson said “patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel”. When Sakshi Maharaj called Nathuram Godse a nationalist he proved Dr Johnson right. When the BJP gets worked up by slogans praising Afzal Guru but ignores its own MP’s utterances you may wonder whether anti-nationalism is a political tactic to be used expediently rather than a principle it upholds.

The views expressed are personal