The events at JNU are still unfolding. A virulent nationalism in the cloak of aggressive patriotism affirms its unflinching loyalty to the “mother nation” by teaching the “erring” JNU students a lesson that they would remember forever. The students are reminded that their indebtedness for subsidised education should be repaid by falling in line.
One has heard non-stop commentary on how the slogans were a misuse of the freedom of expression; that such a freedom comes with responsibility and limits. Nonetheless, the test of this freedom is not conformity, but dissent. Expressions of most abhorrent and distasteful thoughts do not offer grounds for that right to be quelled. Each and every idea has a meaning and a constituency to respond to and be responsible towards. Of course, the means to express these are circumscribed: There should be no violence, no caricaturing, the right of others to express disagreement should not be denied. These limits are essential for the idea to express itself and communicate with others in a more meaningful way. The distinction between the two is important but often missed. The limits on expression are not on expression as such but on ways to voice the ideas. Dictatorial regimes take pleasure and refuge in mixing the two up, and thus ever expand the limits at the cost of ideas.
The “azaadi” sloganeering in JNU that prompted public outcry, a media trial and a furious state in clamping down with the harshest of the provisions of the IPC needs to be read in this context. The right to self-determination of nationalities, no matter how obsolete and self-defeating, is not a new entrant into the discourse. It has a long history, and a particularly painful one for those who have sought to secure it, and have been denied. The violent and often militaristic denial has only allowed an aggrieved consciousness to exist and survive.
In history, the idea of a monolithic “nation-state” has played havoc with humanity — from Germany to Italy, Russia to Poland, Bosnia to Kosovo. And back home in South Asia — in Sri Lanka, Pakistan and our own handling of the Northeast and Kashmir. It is, therefore, not surprising that its reverberations were felt in JNU — a campus that draws students and faculty from different regions, and where academics is enriched by numerous and contending theoretical traditions. Even a mildly open-minded study of world history, politics and society will render the contested and constructed nature of this category of nation-state obvious. Are we not to teach this in our universities? Are we to purge our social sciences of these debates? Are we to exchange our academic freedom for terminal loyalty to the idea of the nation-state?
The ferocity of the demand for steadfast fidelity derives fundamentally from the failure of the nation-state to draw affection from all and sundry — otherwise, the sedition law would be archaic and long dead. But love can hardly be squeezed out with force.
“This prince among political sections of the IPC”, as Mahatma Gandhi dubbed it, was used to rampantly crush a subject population charged with the ideas of anti-colonial nationalism. Our current understanding of sedition comes from its rather expansive definition made by the arch imperialist, Justice James Strachey, in Bal Gangadhar Tilak’s sedition trial. Strachey ruled that writing or speaking about the suffering of people was an act of disloyalty, and lumped together “hatred”, “enmity”, “dislike”, “hostility” and “contempt” in the basket of sedition.
The members of the Constituent Assembly, many of whom had been imprisoned on charges of sedition hoped that an independent India would outgrow the notorious “Strachey Law”. That love and loyalty would no longer have to be enforced, but would spring spontaneously. That disaffection for the government would no longer be equated with treason. K.M. Munshi led the charge against the retention of sedition as an exception to the freedom of speech. But that early promise has been belied in post-Independence India.
For a university to be free, and to allow unhindered exchange of ideas, societies are obligated to fund public universities — yes, with taxpayers’ money. Our debt to the “taxpayers” is not repaid by cutting off one’s tongue but by speaking truth to power, raising uncomfortable questions, expanding the limits of the commonsense and the acceptable. To be sure, many of these ideas will be deeply troubling to our most cherished beliefs, but it is an unwritten pact in all modern democracies to protect universities and institutions of higher learning from punitive consequences for their writings and ideas.