The BS column: The crime of disaffection

(Published in the Business Standard, 28 December 2010)

“Section 124-A, under which I am happily charged, is perhaps the prince among the political sections of the Indian Penal Code designed to suppress the liberty of the citizens. Affection cannot be manufactured or regulated by law. If one has an affection(sic) for a person or system, one should be free to give the fullest expression to his disaffection, so long as he does not contemplate, promote or incite to violence. But the section under which Mr Banker [a colleague in non-violence] and I are charged is one under which mere promotion of disaffection is a crime.”

These words, from Mahatma Gandhi’s closing statement during his trial for sedition in 1922, have been quoted widely in India this year, along with the resurrection of the antiquated laws of Raj India. There were cries of sedition when Arundhati Roy made some remarks on the alienation felt by Kashmiris; this week, the human rights activist Dr Binayak Sen was sentenced to life imprisonment for sedition by a Raipur court in a much-criticised judgement.

By 1909, fears of sedition had turned the British government in India into tireless readers. Sisir Kar’s history of books banned in Bengal under the Raj quotes from a typical circular of the time that urges officers to carefully examine all suspicious material, to “facilitate the immediate detection of seditious books”. As Gandhi was to note, the affection of the subject for the king, or the citizen for the state, could not be commanded—and it was markedly absent in those early years as the national movement gathered steam.

Bankimchandra’s Ananda Math had been in print for 18 years at this time, and as its author, Bankim was struggling between the demands of his job as a government official and the need to express his discontent with the Raj. Between the first and the eighth edition of Ananda Math, the novel that added Vande Mataram to the lexicon of revolution and that would inspire the next generation of revolutionaries, Bankim made continuous changes to the text, often excising or softening sentences that seemed over-critical of the British. In one of the more unusual applications of censorship, there were periods when Ananda Math itself was not banned—but the singing of Vande Mataram was proscribed, and the anthem treated as seditious.

By the time Sharatchandra’s Pather Dabi (1926) was published, featuring, as the Government of Bengal Yearbook commented, “The most powerful act of sedition in almost every page of the book,” disaffection was the spirit of the times. The long history of Pather Dabi, the confiscation of the novel, the exchange between Tagore and Sharatchandra on the impact and validity of criticizing those in power, points to the fact that it was impossible for the Raj to allow questioning of the state without also admitting the disaffection and disillusionment of the writers who questioned it. Tagore disappointed Sharatchandra by praising the tolerance of the British, and by implicitly refusing to endorse the younger author’s insistence that criticism was the only valid response to British rule.

Books like Ananda Math and Pather Dabi were only the most celebrated of their kind; in the attempt to check sedition, journals and books were often confiscated and plays were routinely proscribed or censored. Sisir Kar cites an unwittingly revealing letter from the Police Commissioner, allowing the production of Bankimchandra’s Chandrashekhar to continue if certain objectionable portions were expunged—on pages 10, 19, 20, 33, 36, 40, 41, 43, 51, 54, 55, 80, 120,121, 123, 124, 127, 133, 148 and 151, leaving one to wonder what was left of the play.

All of this, including the trials of the likes of Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Aurobindo Ghose for sedition and conspiracy, were part and parcel of the paraphernalia of a state that was an occupying power, and that had to command the affection of the people who came under its rule. In an independent India, the question is whether the state should still feel paranoid enough to continue using a law where, as Gandhi puts it, “mere promotion of disaffection is a crime”.

The writings of Arundhati Roy, for instance, or the work of Dr Binayak Sen, would have placed them in the time of the British Raj among the ranks of the disaffected. Their willingness, and the willingness of other writers and activists, to question the workings of the state are definitely signs of disaffection. But in a healthy democracy, and a healthy state, the affection of its writers and citizens would be earned, not commanded, and criticism would be welcomed, not seen as threatening. We need to ask whether the same laws that were used against Bankimchandra, Sharatchandra, Tilak and Gandhi should be pressed into service in a country that prides itself on its many freedoms.

8 comments

  1. Questioning the working of a state is different from giving active support to people who work to overthrow the state, and kill security forces, derail trains and kill innocent people too.

  2. You say we are "a country that prides itself on its many freedoms." Only the freedom to vote – not to dance (as in Bombay), not to smoke a joint, not to drink (as in Gujarat), or open a small bar, or even sell your "traditional" drinks like mahua, chhung, feni (outside Goa), toddy and so many more. We don't even possess the Right to Property – the key to Liberty. Ours is an "illiberal, socialist democracy." Please don't ever call this Freedom.

  3. Freedom and censorship are very tricky areas. If we have absolute freedom it would be really chaotic in my opinion. A willful and powerful person is always free to oppress the others. How do you give freedom to everyone? And how do you ensure that they don't misuse it to cause harm / problem to others? In a free world a person should be allowed to drink and drive, shouldn't he? But then he is not in his senses I guess. How do you decide, what to allow, and what not to? Its very difficult. I like the freedom that all of us have, but it also causes some issues. With a country as diverse as ours, there are bound to be differences. And there cane be divisive elements who if highlighted unnecessarily can cause lots of problems. The media therefore needs to be very responsible. However our media is exactly the opposite – it goes for sensationalism rather than true journalism. Its more about TRP than reporting. But then finance is what is running the world right now. So should we have a media regulatory board ? It is a question as difficult as the previous one. I guess we should at least get to have a vote for what rules / guidelines should be set for its operation – knowing how influential news and knowledge is in our current lives.As for the Arundhati Roy case, I hate to say that she is just a wannabe social activist, with nothing else to do. Sunder Lal Bahuguna, Jayprakash Narayan or any other true activist, would never try to cause a rift. They would rather work silently, trying to understand the root cause of the problem. Everyone needs to be responsible about what they say. You can't just say anything. In cricket, if you abuse someone, you get a fine, or a ban. Why not in real life ? Why do people get away, when sometimes so much is at stake? If a defamatory suit can be filed, why not a case of treason against people? But then life is not ideal, and nor is our country. We have to live with its imperfections.

  4. Thanks, Sauvik and Mallikarjun.Mallikarjun, one of the great misconceptions in this country about free speech is that it implies anarchy. Free speech, in most accepted definitions, contains inbuilt limitations (Mill's harm principle, for instance). Within those limitations, a functioning democracy cannot afford to shut down or penalise criticism.About Arundhati Roy, I'd say that her levels of commitment are hard to attack–one might disagree with her views, but she has based her arguments on actual experience, whether it's been on the Narmada dam issue or on Kashmir. I like the fact that she speaks out as a citizen of India–implying that as citizens, we do have the right to criticise our country or express dismay over the functioning of the state. (She would probably argue that it was a duty.)I don't think we understand the difference between attacking the state and criticising it. Criticising the state, expressing dismay at miscarriages of justice, calling the state's functionaries to account, asking for a debate on either the Maoist or the Kashmir issue–all of these are necessary in a democracy.

  5. Nila, firstly your article and India's win made my morning brighter. The content of your article is a sad story but your presentation is appreciable. Yes, free speech in the strictest sense, cannot be allowed but it doesn't mean arbitrary definitions of "free speech" can be set by the government. I guess Nila's and others point is about broadening/correcting the definition of "free speech" as it stands today. The sad thing about this free speech issue is that the party that is trying to stifle the expression of disaffection in the country is the same party that has wrongly projected itself as a descendant of Gandhi.My crib against Arundhati Roy (and in general majority of the media) is that there seems to be some kind of opportunism in her causes. She pitches in into an already populist issue and tends to provide headlines instead of presenting well-argued cases. She speaks only of atrocities on Muslims and Christians but not on Hindus. She doesn't criticise Christians for circulating pamphlets mocking Bhagavad Gita or a demolition of a building (Babri Masjid) cannot be given as an excuse for bombing innocent people. To avoid any misunderstanding, i add that i feel equally sad for any act of violence of a human on another. It turns out that in some cases the victim is a Hindu and in other it is a Muslim or christian. But always projecting only violent acts of one group on another only accentuates the divisiveness. Mainstream media toes the line of muslim/christians being victims always whereas RSS & co toe the totally opposite line. These aren't "errors of judgement" or viewpoints, but what any unbiased mind should be able to present. When i write about dispute between two parties, i should write the flaws and merits of both. But saying that, it doesn't suit the story being built up by international media if A. Roy writes in Guardian that violence by Hindus too as a retaliation to violence or forced religious conversions. And aren't farmer suicides (which have seen more deaths than terrorist attacks and deaths in riots) important enough for a debate in a democracy ? As the man who "covers the bottom 5% of the country" put, there are hardly any newspapers interested in rural affairs. This is why i use the term opportunism and populism. Sorry for focussing more on some of the points raised in the comments rather than on the main article.

  6. Nilanjana, you have not put out a list of good reads of 2010 this year. Pity. Was looking forward to it. Last time there were some interesting books on your list – i even bought some.

  7. The idea that respect can be demanded instead of earned is a funny one – it's never worked but nations keep trying it on. Same goes for laws which require you to "respect" national symbols.

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