JNU protest: Careless use of sedition law has dangerous consequences

  • Ayaz Memon
  • Updated: Feb 19, 2016 09:31 IST
JNU students protest at Jantar Mantar before a march to protest the arrest on Kanhaiya Kumar in New Delhi on February 18, 2016. (Sushil Kumar/HT Photo)

What is the test of loyalty to one’s country? Okay, let me ask this differently. Suppose there is an Indian fan of English origin watching India play England at the Wankhede Stadium, would waving the Union Jack or rooting for the visiting team’s success be an anti-national act?

This is not as frivolous as may seem for it actually formed the crux of British Conservative MP Norman Tebbitt’s ‘Cricket Test’ for immigrants that he had proposed over a quarter of a century back.

In 1990, on India’s cricket tour of England, Tebbitt was as much in the news as 17-year-old sensation Sachin Tendulkar, who was shaking up the cricket establishment with his batting exploits.

In April of that year, a couple of months before the Indian team landed in Blighty, Tebbitt had given an interview to the Los Angeles Times, questioning the loyalty of immigrants to England.

His contention was that immigrants – and his focus was primarily on those from India, Pakistan and the Caribbean -- could only be believed to have integrated into British life if they passed a test: who would they support in a cricket match?

Right through that tour, English citizens of Indian origin thronged the grounds and rooted for Mohammed Azharuddin’s team, intensifying the debate over Tebbitt’s ‘Cricket Test’ in the media.

Support for the Indian (Pakistani and West Indies too) team in England has always been overt. It hasn’t lessened over the years, but what has been diluted considerably is the consternation over it.

Even the fiery Tory leader (now Lord Tebbitt and in his mid-80s), sees the situation differently as evidenced from his support for the national Asian Cricket Awards held at Lord’s in October 2014.

“In recent years,’’ said Lord Tebbitt, “British Asian players have again given us some of that swashbuckling style of play which the crowds are willing to pay to watch.

“Not only that, but it encourages the generations of British-born Asians to feel part of the nation – and those of long British ancestry to welcome them into our team.”

Not all reactions, however, get as engagingly mellow. Only last month a young Pakistani supporter of Virat Kohli, Umar Draz, was arrested for hoisting the Indian tri-colour after India had beaten Australia in a T20 match.

Draz is being tried under section 123-A (damaging the sovereignty of the country) of the Pakistan Penal Code and could face 10 years imprisonment. And all for applauding Kohli’s success against Australia!

Patriotism runs deeper than mere flag waving or bellicose jingoism surely.These cases highlight how bizarre -- and often extreme – positions can be reached when loyalty to country is seen through xenophobic spectacles. When this is pumped up into frenzy in the pell-mell of so-called debates on prime time and the chaotic world of social media, the yardsticks can go haywire.

This does not mean that loyalty to nation is not important, or that seditious acts don’t take place. India has suffered enormously from terrorism, from within and from outside, to take such threats lightly. The law must act swiftly to bring the guilty to book.

But applying this most serious charge of sedition can’t be done cavalierly as we have seen in the Kanhaiya Kumar case. The law is fairly clear as to what constitutes sedition and in the past few days eminent legal luminaries like Soli Sorabjee and Fali Nariman have spelt this out in great detail.

From every account available so far in the public domain, the case of JNU’s Kanhaiya Kumar does not fall under the purview of this law. There could be others who are guilty, so they should be behind bars, not Kanhaiya.

Unfortunately, the authorities have let the situation spin out of control. The JNU administration has been namy-pamby. The overzealous Delhi police, particularly, aggravated matters with its blatantly one-sided investigations and arrests.

But the government is not blameless either. Instead of showing maturity and patience to scrutinise the matter thoroughly and being sensibly tough where needed, the approach has been one of wanting to stamp out any opposition.

As a result the student community and the youth of this country, which according to most reports had voted massively for a change in the political dispensation, are beginning to feel riled and threatened.

That is not good news.

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