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In the 1990s, the country’s polity was divided by secular versus pseudo secular faultlines; now, another divide, and frankly far more insidious, is sought to be created between ‘national’ and ‘anti-national’ forces.
When I was first accused of being ‘anti-national’ on social media, I was angry. Now, a few years later, the current coarse political discourse, where desh bhakti certificates are being liberally distributed, tempts me to scream: garv se kaho hum desh-drohi hai (proud to be ‘anti-national’). Let me tell you why.
Yes, I am anti-national because I believe in an expanded definition of the right to free speech as spelt out in Article 19 of the Constitution. The only two ‘reasonable restrictions’ are incitement to violence and hate speech. What constitutes hate speech may be open to debate. Is, for example, the slogan of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement ‘Jo Hindu hit kee baat karega vahi desh pe raj karega’, which openly calls for a Hindu Rashtra, to be seen as violative of the law or not and does it spread enmity among communities? Is ‘Raaj karega khalsa’, the slogan of the Khalistanis, to be seen as seditious or not? In Balwant Singh versus State of Punjab, the Supreme Court ruled in the negative.
Yes, I am anti-national because while I am discomfited by the slogan shouting at JNU in support of Parliament terror convict Afzal Guru, I do not see it as an act of sedition. The sketchy video evidence made available shows the ‘students’ (we still don’t know if all of them were, indeed, students) shouting slogans like ‘Bharat kee barbaadi’, and hailing Afzal’s ‘martyrdom’.
The speeches are primarily an anti-government tirade but is it enough to see the students as potential terrorists or rather as political sympathisers of the azaadi sentiment? And is that ideological support enough to brand them as jihadis who must be charged with sedition?
Yes, I am anti-national because in a plural democracy I believe we must have a dialogue with Kashmiri separatists as we must with those in the North-East who seek autonomy. I will listen to student protestors in Srinagar or Imphal as I will to those in an FTII or a JNU.
Prosecute all those who break the law, incite violence, resort to terror but don’t lose the capacity to engage with those who dissent. The right to dissent is as fundamental as the right to free speech: shouting down alternative views, be they on prime time TV or on the street, is not my idea of India.
Yes, I am anti-national because I don’t believe in doublespeak on issues of nationalism. If support for Afzal Guru is to be seen as ‘sedition’, then at least half the erstwhile Cabinet in Jammu and Kashmir, where the BJP is in coalition with the PDP, would be held guilty.
After all, the PDP’s stated position has been to protest Afzal’s hanging as a miscarriage of justice. If the Kashmiri youth today see Afzal as someone who was framed, they should be challenged to a legal and political debate but can they be branded as ‘jihadists’ simply because their views are repugnant to the rest of the country?
Would we then by extension also suggest that the Hindu Mahasabha, which even today glorifies Nathuram Godse every January 30, even as the rest of India mourns the Mahatma, is an anti-national organisation? Should BJP MP Sakshi Maharaj’s defence of Godse be seen as an anti-national act or not, or will definitions of nationalism be shaped by the convenience of power politics?
Yes, I am anti-national because while I am a proud Hindu who wakes up to the Gayatri mantra, I also like a well done beef steak, which, according to BJP minister Mukhtar Naqvi, is a treasonous act, enough to pack me off to Pakistan. I celebrate the rich diversity of my country through food: Korma on Eid, pork sorpotel with my Catholic neighbours in Goa during Christmas and shrikhand during Diwali is my preferred diet. The right to food of my choice is again a freedom which I cherish and am unwilling to cede.
Yes, I am anti-national because I will fight lawless lawyers who attack defenceless women journalists in the name of ‘Bharat mata’ (don’t forget women journalists were targeted on a fateful day in December 1992 also) while policemen do little to stop the pseudo-patriots.
I am a proud Indian who admires the sacrifice of our jawans, which is why I believe our men on the border must get higher wages rather than be trapped in a bureaucratic tangle. I support gay rights, am against the death penalty on principle, find any violence in the name of caste, religion or gender unacceptable. And yes, I like raising inconvenient truths in the public domain: if that makes me anti-national, then so be it.
But above all else, I am anti-national because I believe in Ambedkar’s concept of a republican constitution that places the citizen and rule of law at its core. No one has the right to impose their vision of ‘cultural nationalism’ on a diverse society in the guise of ‘one nation, one religion, one culture’.
And when I get weary of the ‘desh-drohi’ abuse I will seek solace in the legend of my original icon, Muhammad Ali, who, as Cassius Clay, threw his gold medal into the river in protest at being denied entry into a whites-only restaurant. His act led him to be termed ‘anti-national’ and stripped of his Olympic medal. Several years later, as he lit the torch at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, it was America’s way of apologising to one of its greatest folk heroes. I hope some of you say sorry to me too one day!
Post-script: Last week, at the Delhi Gymkhana litfest, I suggested that the right to free speech must include the right to offend so long as it doesn’t incite violence. A former army officer angrily got up and shouted, “You are an anti-national who should be lynched right here!” When even the genteel environs of the Gymkhana club echo to such strains, we should all be very worried.
Rajdeep Sardesai is a senior journalist and author. The views expressed are personal.