The country is threatened by a gamut of things ranging from 140-character tweets to WhatsApp messages and Facebook posts, from emails to articles, to books, songs, plays and films. You name it and it could destabilise this country.
If the very large number of cases that have been registered for “hurting religious or communal sentiments”, sedition and under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) are any indication, Indians are all but doomed. No other country of the world registers so many cases against its own citizens for allegedly having committed offences against the state.
If these cases are genuine, it can only mean that there is clearly something wrong with the nation state of India. Either the manner in which this nation was created was defective or the people of this country have no love for their country.
However, if the fabric of Indian society is really so weak as to be threatened by words, we must be flogging a dead horse. If not, then the only other motive possible is to settle political scores against whoever is perceived to be the ‘other’. Usually, these people are Muslims, so-called leftists and ‘urban naxals’, students, activists of any description and members of various marginalised communities.
In other words, anybody whose views or whose plight touches off something raw in the majoritarian perspective is likely to be branded ‘anti-national’ and have the full might of the state unleashed against them.
According to the National Crime Records Bureau’s ‘Crime in India’ report for 2019, the country registered a staggering 25,118 cases of ‘offences against the state’ from 2017 to 2019 – an average of 8,533 cases per year. Of these, Uttar Pradesh alone contributed 27.8% of cases in 2019. The implication should be obvious.
Of ‘offences against the state’, there were 93 cases of sedition (Section 124A), 73 cases of waging war against India (Section 121, etc.), 58 cases of acts prejudicial to national integration (Section 153B) and 1,226 cases under UAPA. The police arrested 95 people for sedition and 1,900 people under UAPA – even as not a single genuine terrorist attack took place anywhere in the country in this period.
Did we really have so many terrorists in this country? Have we heard of someone wanting to overthrow the central government by violent means? The terrorists in Kashmir and the northeast wanted to secede from India, all right, but never spoke of overthrowing the seat of government in Delhi. In 2004, members of the CPI (Maoist) had spoken of a revolution. But since then, having realised the futility of their venture, even they stopped talking about revolutions.
If we really have so many terrorists in the country, something is seriously wrong with the government – that their governance and the way this country has been functioning for this long has encouraged many young people, including PhD students from prestigious universities, to become terrorists.
Or the whole thing is a farce.
Would we accept that there is something fundamentally wrong with the nation, the way it was created or our experiment with nation-building? Let us not forget that ours is perhaps the only country in the world where, 73 years after independence, political leaders of all hues don’t tire of exhorting the people to maintain the “unity and integrity” of the country almost every day against “internal threats”.
What are these internal threats and what creates them? What is so uniquely fragile about our unity and integrity that we are obligated to reinforce it every day? Many Indians like to describe Pakistan as a failed state, but even there, no one calls out people to defend the unity and integrity of the country!
Here, we teach patriotism in schools from the very beginning and still claim to have so many people supposedly wishing ill for the country. This means either our education is farcical or patriotism no longer makes sense to the people.
Since the nation doesn’t have any answer to why so many young, bright students must take to terrorism or become traitors, the only answer is that they have been falsely implicated with the ulterior political motive of stamping out even ideological dissent.
The Indian state is obsessed with absolutism. Deep down in their hearts, our political leaders suffer such terrible insecurities that any hint of a different opinion threatens their shaky foundations – already built upon nothing but a collective brainwashing of the gullible masses.
So it is natural for them to feel insecure because they know that except slick propaganda, they have little that is tangible to show. So they go hell for leather in abusing the law and the legal process just to silence dissent.
The great Chinese strategist Sun Tzu had said, “Kill one, frighten ten thousand.” The Indian state has modified this as, “Implicate one in a false case, frighten ten thousand.”
From 2017 to 2019, as many as 6,250 cases were registered for “promoting enmity” between different groups. These cases originate from the bogey of hurting sentiments.
Do we really mean to tell the world that the citizens of the ‘Vishwaguru’ (“teacher nation of the world”) are so hypersensitive, so touchy about matters of religion, that their sentiments are hurt at the drop of a hat, and that every time it happens, there will be a threat to public order? Don’t Indians have anything else to do except getting worked up over their religion? Is there no life beyond religion? We don’t have a blasphemy law but the rampant abuse of sections 153A and 295A of the IPC makes the situation worse than that.
In Ramji Lal Modi v. The State of UP (1957), a constitution bench of the Supreme Court held that just about any careless, wanton or unwitting insult to a religion or its adherents is not punishable. Only deliberate and malicious intention of outraging religious feelings is punishable. Yet we find the police invoking Section 295A even for jokes.
In The Superintendent, Central Prison, Fatehgarh v. Ram Manohar Lohia (1960), a constitution bench said there must be a proximate link between speech and public disorder, and not a far-fetched, remote or fanciful connection. Yet we find Sections 295A and 153A invoked even for tweets or articles that might only a few hundred people might have read.
In Ramesh v. Union of India (1988) and Pravasi Bhalai Sangathan v. Union of India & Ors (2014), the Supreme Court held that the effect of words must be judged from the standards of reasonable, strong-minded, firm and courageous people – not those of weak and vacillating minds, nor of those who smell danger in every hostile point of view.
The remarkable alacrity with which the police slap these sections might suggest there is no reasonable person left in the country. In fact, it looks like we don’t have a country of 138 crore people so much as a veritable powder keg, which will explode the moment any of these people does anything that the state or the majority view doesn’t like.
And as if our internal fault lines were not enough, we now have the bogey of “international conspirators” are out to “discredit India”.
There was a time when, in State of Uttar Pradesh vs Lalai Singh Yadav (1976), Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer cited Harold Laski: “A government can always learn more from the criticism of its opponents than from the eulogy of its supporters. To stifle that criticism is – at least ultimately – to prepare its own destruction.” Now we have reached a situation where light-hearted banter is deemed sufficient to register a police case.
The Democratic representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez had told Donald Trump, “You are angry because you can’t conceive of an America that includes us. You rely on a frightened America for your plunder.”
The situation in India today is eerily similar. Either we have become ‘Frightened India’ (Bhaybheet Bharat) or, if we deny it, the state is brazenly using fear as the only instrument it knows to rule over people.
N.C. Asthana, a retired IPS officer, has been DGP Kerala and a long-time ADG CRPF and BSF. Views are personal. He tweets at @NcAsthana.