About 180 more notables stand up for the rights of 49 of their peers against whom FIRs have been filed for sedition
A serious offence requires serious proof. That too of intent. But given the recent directive by a Bihar court that called for a chargesheet to be filed against 49 notables, simply because they expressed concern about the state of affairs, it means we have ceased to believe in the democracy of dissent. And are quite okay with the chastisement of notables, who form the intellectual and cultural wealth of a nation because of the diversity of views they bring to the table and reset the moral compass when it goes awry. Their only fault was that they had written an open letter to the Prime Minister, raising concern over the rising number of lynching incidents in the country. Open letters have been the most peaceful form of political protest movements around the world and the letter writers were just exercising their constitutional right. Besides, they were not making any tall claims, they were quoting National Crime Record Bureau (NCRB) figures as the basis of their concern. Although the ruling BJP has distanced itself from the development, and the Bihar police claimed that it had filed the FIR pursuant to the court order, it has now the entire artiste community up in arms. Over 180 cultural and literary personalities have come out in the open to condemn the charges and endorsed the original letter. Not only that, they are prepared to generate wave after wave of support if their free speech invites censure or legal action. Benegal, who has been a bard of independent India by documenting social change through his films, had even clarified in the earlier letter that the sacredness of Ram was dear to the Indic consciousness and was being defiled as much violence was being perpetrated by wrongfully invoking his name. But the trouble with discourse that has been simplified into binaries of nationalists and traitors is rationality itself. The debate between Left-liberal domination of civil discourse through decades and the new-found assertion and inclusion of Rightist thought is not new. Yes, there should be all shades of opinion and interpretation in the plural matrix of India but does that behove we won’t look at their distortions, some of which indeed challenge the expansive aura of the Vedic civilisation? Does it also mean that we stop debate with repressive State action?
In no way did the writers attempt to fuel disaffection or seem to be a threat to national integration. Is stirring conscience inflammatory? It was, therefore, surprising that the matter was taken up by the chief judicial magistrate at a Muzaffarpur court. Besides, without even any preliminary investigation being done, which is mandatory for an FIR to be filed, the court concluded that the contents of the said letter were “seditious.” Invoking various provisions of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), the court booked them for several criminal offences, including sedition, public nuisance, hurting religious feelings and insulting with intent to provoke breach of peace. Surely, matters related to sedition are not new, it being an umbrella term to lump anybody who is in disagreement with State policy. There have been many cases in recent times where voices of dissent, in the form of slogans, write-ups, a statement or for that matter even a social media post raised in any part of the country, have been met with charges of sedition, irrespective of the Government at the Centre or respective State Governments. There have also been enough debates on the very purpose of the sedition law, a colonial relic which served as a tool of oppression in the imperialist era and has no place in a democracy. Ironically, the same law has ceased to exist in the UK but continues here. Even the Supreme Court has narrowed down its meaning to (i) a person who causes violence or (ii) a person encourages people to create violence. But the lower judiciary seems to have ignored its directive. If the ruling BJP indeed wants to rescue Hindu pride, then it must look at our civilisation. We have had ancient city-states that functioned in the spirit of democracy. So there should be space for dissent, not incarceration, the Opposition as competition, not criticism. The BJP leadership must realise that it certainly is the ruling party but does not rule the cultural ethos. Besides, greater Hinduism has survived despite its many offshoots. Politicians should remember that if they reject the larger definition, they will end up suffering the most. This then is the real problem, the Hinduness of our civilisational thinking being challenged as “anti-national.” Simply because the blame-game is easier than deep introspection.