- News Analysis
- Special Reports
- Arts & Culture
When Mohandas Gandhi, the god-father of India who will be revered as the leading light of its freedom movement by the present and future generations of Indians, was arrested by the British colonialists for his role in exhorting the people to rise against the British rulers and charged with sedition in 1922 in Ahmadabad, he pleaded guilty. He told the judge: “I have no desire whatsoever to conceal from this court that to preach disaffection towards the existing system of government has become almost a passion with me…”. “Sedition”, said Gandhi, “in law is a deliberate crime” but it “appears to me to be the highest duty of the citizen”.
How ironic that in a country that is enjoying freedom won for it by such people as Gandhi, who called sedition ‘his duty’ in the struggle to throw out the foreign occupiers of his land, there are people who level charges of sedition against Kashmiris who refuse to be coerced into calling themselves Indians and demand ‘Azadi’ (freedom) from India which had forcibly occupied Kashmir in cahoots with the departing British Viceroy and later annexed it into the Indian Union against the wishes of the Kashmiri people.
Ludicrously, demands are being made by nationalist and rightist groups for prosecution under sedition laws of the Kashmiri leaders and those honest, fearless, outspoken and forthright non-Kashmiri Indians of all faiths who support this cause as just.
In a seminar held in Delhi on 21st October 2010 on “Azadi (freedom) – The Only Way”, the elderly Kashmiri leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani, Arundhati Roy – a noted writer, Sheikh Showkat Hussain – Professor of Law, Varavara Roy – a human rights activist, Shuddhahruta Sengupta, and many others came to present Kashmir’s case for ‘Azadi’ directly to the people of India, bypassing the dishonest media, and give them the true picture of what was happening in Kashmir – ruthless security forces engaging in brutal killings, arrests, human rights abuses and a systematic economic blockade of the valley, all with the intent of breaking the will of the people and forcing them into submission by giving up their demand for freedom.
A point to note: the speakers who came to make or support the call for ‘Azadi’ included Kashmiri leaders, leaders representing dissident groups and major insurgency movements from other parts of India, journalists, intellectuals and activists from amongst Hindus, Christians, and Muslims.
This seminar was a step in the right direction. Perhaps for the first time the slogan “Hum kia chahtay hain – Azadi!” (What do we want – Freedom!) was heard in many Indian living rooms through the TV channels. This was the first time that some people had the courage to speak up against the human rights violations in occupied Kashmir right in the heart of India. Perhaps for the first time the media was forced to carry somewhat truthful reports about what was said in the seminar about Kashmir. And perhaps for the first time many Indians realized that just as they had gained freedom from the British colonialists, the Kashmiris had the right to freedom, too, because they have historically been an independent state like many other states in the region, and the sale of their state to the Hindu ruler by the British usurpers was an arbitrary and unlawful act that did not take away from them their right to independence.
These issues needed to be presented to the people across the country in the correct perspective, and apparently the Kashmiri leaders decided to venture out for the first time to places like Delhi, Chennai, and Kolkata. This will not sit well with the Indian government, nor will it suit the agenda of the nationalist and rightist parties who use Kashmiri pundits (members of Hindu religious class) to sabotage such efforts.
The demand for Azadi being made on the streets of Kashmir is one thing, but the same call made in the heart of the capital Delhi, accompanied by shouts of ‘Azadi’, is another. This did upset many people. The seminar was sabotaged by Kashmiri pundits who desperately want the world to believe that they are the only victims of religious persecution during earlier disturbances in Kashmir and that their plight as displaced persons living in Indian refugee camps overrides the call of Kashmiri Muslims for independence. The fact is that most of them do not live in refugee camps but lead a comfortable life elsewhere and under the banner of “Roots in Kashmir” (RIK) they allow themselves to be used to counter the demand of independence by Kashmiri Muslims.
These pundits manipulate occasions such as this seminar to project themselves as victims of Muslim terrorism in Kashmir and create ruckus that would force them to be dragged away by the police under the gaze of television cameras to gain public sympathy. And then under instructions from Delhi and rightist groups they refuse to go back to Kashmir despite calls from Kashmiri leaders and the people for their return and despite assurances for their safety.
When Arundhati Roy, an internationally recognized writer and activist from South India, took the podium to say that Kashmir “is not an integral part of India”, expressed disgust over the ruthless oppression of Kashmiris and killings of unarmed demonstrators and supported the demand of the people for independence, the RSS – a radical group, Bharatia Janata Party (BJP) and a motley crowd of nationalists, rightists, extremist politicians, Hindu fanatics, Hindu terror groups, media affiliates of extremist politicians, and sympathizers inside Indian security agencies, were all up in arms, accusing her and other speakers of sedition and demanding specifically the heads of Geelani and Roy.
Many in India do not know that all mainstream Indian newspapers and television networks strictly adhere to the state policy on Kashmir, and it is impossible to find a major Indian news outlet breaking away from this unspoken consensus. But the possibility of seeing Arundhati Roy in the dock was big news. “Arundhati Roy and Geelani are likely to be tried for sedition”, screamed TV channels and wire networks, “for they have demanded independence for Kashmir.”
This was dramatics, pure and simple. There was nothing in the speeches that had not been said before by other speakers, leaders, ordinary people in the streets of Kashmir, and the Kashmiri media. But the idea was to push the Kashmiris on to the back foot. This was considered necessary because the struggle and sacrifices of the Kashmiris over the last twenty years, specifically during the last three years, in sustaining the independence movement were now making a difference. Kashmir had begun to be taken seriously, nationally and globally. Indian occupation of Kashmir was being looked upon as immoral.
The intention of whipping up religious frenzy and creating an intimidating environment for Roy was clearly aimed at terrorizing and silencing her and any other Indians who might be having similar thoughts. Being a Christian, a member of a minority group, Roy is vulnerable to attacks by Hindu fundamentalists. Indian Christians have been burned alive in acts of violence as recently as the winter of 2008, just as Hindu mobs burnt alive Muslim men, women and children in the Gujarat state in 2002.
But it would have been silly for the Indian government to charge Arundhati Roy with sedition because she is known to be India’s dissident–in-chief and such an action would have aroused international condemnation, casting India’s image after China or Burma, tarnish its standing as emerging regional power and the largest democracy and, above all, bring the Kashmir issue into more international limelight.
She silenced her critics by saying (and quoting) that she said about Kashmir nothing different from what India’s Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, the founder of post-independence India, had said. She argued that those charging her with sedition did not realize the irony of proving her right on that count. She lamented: “Pity the nation that has to silence its writers for speaking their minds… that needs to jail those who ask for justice, while communal killers, mass murderers, corporate scamsters, looter, rapists, and those who prey on the poorest of the poor roam free.”
As Nivedita Mennon pointed out in an article, sedition was enshrined in the Indian Penal Code’s section 124(A) by the British colonial government in 1860, with the intention to use it against Indian freedom fighters. But after the British left, the Indians retained the statute on the law books by only suitably substituting words like ‘Her Majesty’ and ‘British India’. The charge of sedition, says Mennon, means, “exciting disaffection against the government”. Disaffection, he says, means: “The absence or alienation of affection or goodwill; estrangement”. By no stretch of imagination can anyone prove that disaffection against the Indian government does not already exist in abundance in Kashmir, the insurgent states of Northeast, the Naxalite region from east to south, Tamil Nadu and Punjab by virtue of the use of draconian laws – AFSPA, and fascist tactics used by military jackboots, which act more like an occupying army.
The central and state governments have often misused the charge of sedition to stifle dissent. But being weak legally it has mostly not been upheld by the courts, particularly because the Indian Supreme Court has established that sedition charges would stick only if speech intentionally disturbs public order and incites violence. Legal experts and political scientists have opined that ‘sedition’ and ‘contempt of court’ are out of place in modern democracy for these criminalize and stifle dissent, critique and ethical challenge to unjust order that are fundamental to free speech and democracy.
During a parliamentary debate, Jawaharlal Nehru said of the law dealing with sedition: “Take section 124(A) of Indian Penal Code. Now so far as I am concerned that particular section is highly objectionable and obnoxious and it should have no place both for practical and historical reasons, if you like, in any body of laws that we might pass. The sooner we get rid of it the better. We might deal with that matter in other ways, in more limited ways, as every other country does but that particular thing should have no place because all of us have had enough experience of it in a variety of ways and apart from the logic of the situation, our urges are against it.”
Nehru’s urge against the sedition law emanated apparently from, among others, the trial of Mahatma Gandhi and later, the trial of Sheikh Abdullah in 1946, the Kashmiri leader and Nehru’s friend. Sheikh Abdullah had challenged the validity of the historical basis of British rule in Kashmir by questioning the Treaty of Amritsar of 1846, under which Kashmir was bought by Raja Gulab Singh from the British. For demanding freedom for Kashmir upon the withdrawal of the British, he was tried and punished under sedition laws by the Kashmiri ruler, Raja Hari Singh.
Shivam Vij, a Delhi based writer, had this to say about the struggle of the people of Kashmir: “As an Indian I believe in the Constitution of India. I endorse the Kashmiris’ right to demand independence from India because the values of occupation are not the values of the founding fathers of the Indian Constitution. Forcing a nation to identify itself with the Indian Union is not the spirit of Indian Constitution. If the idea of India is one where the self appointed guardians of nationalism decide what national interest is and then want to see in jail those who don’t agree with that version of national interest, we must all secede from such an India. We are all Kashmiris!”
In solidarity with the Kashmiris in their freedom struggle, the people of the world who are engaged in similar movements, or have gone through the experience, stand shoulder to shoulder with them. And if the demand for freedom amounts to sedition, then Gandhi and Nehru and thousands of other Indian freedom fighters who rose against the British, and those that fought for freedom elsewhere in the world, were all guilty of sedition. As a consequence, today we are all seditious.