To be a nationalist in India, especially the Right-wing variety, enjoins blaming the colonial regime for all the wrongs in the country. In this politics, the Left wing too puts the imperial government under deleterious scanner. The British regime of 200-odd years is a subject of numerous studies, conversations, celebrations and commemorations. Academia has devoted an entire gamut of ‘postcolonial studies’ to study those years. Two generations later, this concept continues to peripherally entertain the social sciences discipline. However, the progenies of post-colonials, under the garb of liberal nationalists, stand up against the powers-that-be only when their control through zamindari and the capitalist class is threatened.
The imperial State had utilised its resources to target organisations and individuals who resisted its oppressive rule. Sedition and preventive detention were legal methods deployed to eliminate dissent. The State demanded complete submission to its authority.
Similar modus operandi have continued in post-Independent India. Governments under the Congress or the BJP have emulated their white predecessors in controlling any form of discontent by the poor and oppressed groups.
If the legacy of sedition and draconian laws like the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, Public Safety Act and National Security Act exist, it means the government doesn’t honour the immense sacrifices of our country’s freedom fighters. It is because of them that we are supposedly enjoying freedoms in our country, though those freedoms are denied to anyone whom the ruling castes are at odds with.
It is not an accident that Dalits, Adivasis and Muslims remain disproportionately the prime target of these atrocious laws, along with anyone who dares defend civil liberties. In fact, many of the activists and scholars who have written against legislation like the UAPA find themselves incarcerated under them now.
The premise on which these laws exist in the first place is that there are internal threats to the Indian State — i.e., that there exist citizens who challenge its authority. Any mature, democratic State would try to address the reasons behind this, instead of a concerted kneejerk approach. The State also attacks Dalits via anti-Left rhetoric, as directly attacking them would cost it heavily.
It is in this context that one needs to ask what good is the Indian State offering Dalits — aside from the breadcrumbs of reservations, which are still not implemented in totality. Mind you, the Supreme Court’s attitude towards reservations is clear, in stating that states are not bound to give reservations in jobs and promotions. What steps does the State then plan to ensure the safety of its Constitutionally protected communities?
Dalit and Adivasi social and political movements need to consider waging a struggle against the draconian laws primarily aimed at penalising them, though the attempts by citizens to constitutionally organise against a mighty State might be considered by it as an assault on its so-called integrity. In a 2018 joint study by Common Cause and Lokniti, 27% of Adivasis said they feared being framed for anti-State Maoist activities, while 35% Dalits for petty crimes and 47% Muslims for terrorism-related charges.
These draconian laws have their DNA in British-era brutality. The victims of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre were people who had come together to protest against the Rowlatt Act, that led to incarceration without trial and judicial review. To continue with such draconian legislation is to continue with the legacy of British oppression.
Under the UAPA, a person can be detained for 180 days without charges, giving ludicrous rights to the State. This way the government can conveniently put activists it considers a threat to national security behind bars. The State’s use of the UAPA shows it doesn’t differentiate between dissent of political nature and criminal activity. One can also be sure that if the government is using draconian laws against Left-wing Dalit and Adivasi activists, the same will be repeated against people now enjoying profligacies of power.
A firm believer in parliamentary democracy, Babasaheb Ambedkar stressed the importance of organising, agitating and opposition. We need an opposition to keep the powers in check.
In the country of Ambedkar and Mahatma Gandhi, adjusting on the lines of Bal Gangadhar Tilak, one cannot have such an inhuman response to the State’s failures. If we do not counter these laws, soon even Ambedkarism might be deemed a terrorist ideology, because it seeks justice and equality.
This article appeared in the print edition of May 3, 2020, under the name ‘Sedition, UAPA denial of basic freedoms’. Suraj Yengde, author of Caste Matters, curates the fortnightly ‘Dalitality’ column
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