The Bold Voice of J&K

‘Break India’ is more than just discomfiting

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Rajesh Singh 

Mark Twain had observed that a patriot is a person “who can holler the loudest without knowing what he is hollering about”. The same can be said of people who rant about freedom of expression and the value of dissent by overlooking brazen anti-national actions. The Jawaharlal Nehru University episode ought to have led to a nuanced debate that had less of hollering from both sides and more of affirmation of the need to balance free speech with sedition (I use the term in a general and not legal sense). Unfortunately, society seems to have split down the middle into ‘patriots’ and ‘non-patriots’, with the former going more than the proverbial extra mile in presenting their credentials and the latter taking delight in flaunting their ‘secular-liberal’ character through a sarcastic admission of their ‘anti-nationalism’.
Writing in a leading national daily last week, prominent television journalist and author Rajdeep Sardesai poured his heart out on why he is an ‘anti-national’. Among other things, he said that he is an anti-national because he maintains that sloganeering in favour of Afzal Guru is not sedition; because he believes in an “expanded definition” of the right to free speech as given by Article 19 of the Constitution; and that India must engage with Kashmiri separatists. I cannot claim to understand how Sardesai’s mind works; I have met him only once for an interview in connection with his book on the 2014 Lok Sabha election, and found him affable and courteous. If I now undertake an analysis of his position, it’s only because Sardesai speaks not just for himself but for the many others who believe that the thin line which separates freedom of expression with anti-nationalism or sedition must remain as blurred as possible at all times so as to make the invocation of sedition virtually impossible.
The television journalist admittedly has a long list of supporters; it could be as long as that of his detractors. Yet he represents only one point of view and, however well that is articulated, it doesn’t become the only sensible one. As an avid sports fan, he will have heard of the legendary American golfer Payne Stewart, who once remarked, “Yes, I’m a patriotic person. For these people who disgrace the American way and burn our flag and do all of these things, I say: Don’t live here and disgrace my country. Go live in the Middle East and see how you like it.” Replace ‘American’ with ‘Indian’ and ‘Middle East’ with, say, ‘Pakistan’, and you have a sentiment that resonates in India just as it does within other countries, especially those that have been at the receiving end of hate directed at their existence.
In an attempt to solidify and further polish his image of a ‘dissenter’, Sardesai pulls out arguments entirely irrelevant to the debate at hand. For instance, he approvingly calls himself an anti-national if being an anti-national means celebrating 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…” I too have similarly celebrated this rich diversity during my 34-year stay in that State and nothing that it did to my digestive system has led me to turn into a defiant ‘anti-national’. Moreover, what has this got to do with demanding punishment for those who wish to destroy India?
Sardesai is giving too much weight to fringe elements that have imposed their definitions of nationality vis-à-vis culinary habits. Worse, he is using them to press ahead with his condemnation of certain parties and individuals although these have repeatedly distanced themselves from such opinions. It is a red herring which he employs to steer the discourse elsewhere.
Sardesai is uncomfortable with the thought of wearing one’s patriotism on the sleeves. Thus, while he is “discomfited” by the anti-India slogans (like one would be, by a fly buzzing near the ear), he does not find it seditious. Perhaps he fears that by terming the Afzal Guru brigade with something more potent than ‘discomfiting’, he may lose the position he holds in secular-liberal circles. So, he skips the divisive slogans while being simultaneously shocked by the contrary opinion. The American conservative author, William F Buckley Jr, had remarked, “Liberals claim to want to give a hearing to other views, but then are shocked and offended to discover that there are other views” (emphasis mine).
Just three of the offensive slogans will suffice to make the point: “Bharat ki barbadi tak, jung rahegi”; “Afzal ke armano ko manzil tak le jayenge”; and, “Afzal hum sharminda hain, tere qatil zinda hain”. Perhaps these only freshen up the parched throats of rabble-rousers! It appears fine for Sardesai that people can flaunt their anti-nationalism and get away as mere dissenters exercising their right to free speech, but those who express their nationalist sentiments equally openly must be branded as intolerant people.
And, while he sidesteps the problematic utterances of the Afzal Guru brigade, he gleefully pulls out quotes to tarnish the other side, one of which goes as follows: “Jo Hindu hit ki baat karega, vahi desh pe raaj karega.” For Sardesai, this may appear more damning and far more seditious than what Afzal Guru’s admirers have been ranting. Maybe he reads into this slogan by a bunch of charged-up Hindutva elements a danger to the disintegration and prosperity of India, but finds nothing quite as alarming in the overt threats by anti-nationals to break the country into pieces and to not rest until this is achieved. He glosses over the sense of non-proportionality that is so evident in talking of the two provocations in the same breath.
Two years ago, Arvind Kejriwal had famously retorted: “Yes, I’m an anarchist” adding that he didn’t mind the term if it meant he was out to disrupt a faulty system and shake up a corrupt governance machinery. What is that degenerative set-up which Sardesai wants to put right by proclaiming, “Yes, I’m anti-national”? Freedom of speech under Article 19 is alive and flourishing, but the freedom of those who abuse it to threaten the country, cannot be under perpetual protection.
Sardesai is justified in his anger over hooliganism at the Patiala House court premise, with a bunch of people targeting an arrested JNU student leader and sections of the media. But the incident, at best an exaggerated response resulting from hyped-sentiments and failed law and order, cannot be equated with the call to accomplish the destruction of the country.
I end here as I began with a quote from Mark Twain: “Loyalty to the country always; loyalty to the Government when it deserves.” Sardesai can apply this yardstick to the flourishing pro-Afzal and pro-everything-anti-India camps and judge for himself.

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