In the case of Disha Ravi’s arrest, while it is clear that there is an intended assault on freedom of expression and dissent, the nature of the charges aim for something deeper.
Levelling trivial charges of changing two lines in the toolkit amounting to sedition is an unabashed assault on common sense. It aims to unsettle our commonsensical ability through which most decide what is appropriate and what is not. It is an unapologetic attempt to change the moral valuation of events.
When trivial becomes a serious business of national interest, security concerns and India’s global image, it becomes an attempt to change the underlying cultural codes and our trust in ourselves to evaluate what is right and what is wrong. Death of common sense leads to loss of confidence, dependence on set narratives and consent for crime, conspiracy and violence as a new normal. This is more ominous in its implications than a ‘mere’ assault on free speech it is one on one’s ability to think and trust our evaluation of the world.
Today, while the farmers’ movement represents the strength of common sense and depth of their nationalism, the counter-narrative of the regime is challenging our ability to evaluate and separate the trivial from the serious. If a tweet can bring down India’s image then one is unsure of everything one does. If changing two lines can constitute sedition then taking part in a movement and making an assessment of it, leave alone standing in support, can count for a much more serious crime. We are condemned to discuss, with seriousness, the legality behind Disha’s arrest and how India’s image took a beating with Greta Thunberg’s tweet and therefore why it is justified to file an FIR against her.
This is a well-organised model of criminalising public culture. Being civic itself becomes a crime by default. One is unsure where and by whom a conspiracy is being hatched. It could be a global celebrity or a harmless student. Under these conditions to trust is to be foolish and lack common sense, to think of a possibility of a conspiracy lurking behind such innocuous behaviour is a more prudent thing to do. To use one’s own sense of right and wrong is to be gullible, to depend on what the regime says is relatively the safer thing to do to avoid unwarranted trouble.
In other words, either individually or collectively we are not capable of knowing or even sensing who is an enemy and what kind of intentions they bear or what could be the long term damaging impact of what looks like harmless acts of expressing views on social media. Trivial can be potent enough to hurt our collective security. An ‘innocent’ looking 22-year old, woman or student living in your neighbourhood does not necessarily mean she cannot be a potential threat to the nation. To think that we, as citizens, can decide or have an opinion about a serious issue of national security is a dangerous act against national interest. Trivial and common sense have been replaced by fears of crime and conspiracy.
The idea that Disha Ravi, under the garb of an environmental activist, was hatching a larger conspiracy alongside the Khalistanis, who are gaining ground through what appears to be a farmers’ movement, is a narrative that leaves no space for civic engagement as citizens. To engage one needs to back one’s instinct because not everything we say and do is supported by a serious study of the issue at hand or collecting detailed facts.
We act based mostly on common sense, our moral world view, our feelings and emotions that help us separate the trivial from the serious, crime from dissent, and an opinion from a conspiracy. But if the very terms of reference are inter-changed and we are told we were too gullible all along, then a pervasive sense of self-doubt grips us and we doubt our ability to back our instincts. We are then compelled to groom our instincts around this set narrative and believe that we might have arrived at it on our own. It is a collective death of common sense.
The death of common sense in the West seems to have happened due to excessive intrusion of law into what German philosopher Jurgen Habermas refers to as the everyday ‘lifeworld’. In India, the same is happening through wanton lawlessness of state and organised groups in the name of religion and nation.
What is at stake is not just freedom of expression but freedom to think. It, by default, justifies vigilante culture at one end and a silent citizenry on the other. It erodes everyday trust at one end and encourages undiluted loyalty at the other. It summons pervasive self-doubt at one end and blind faith at the other. It commands omnipresence of crime and conspiracy at one end and death of common sense at the other. It finally makes freedom a terrible cost to pay and meaningless suffering an exalted act of altruism and patriotism.
We need to reclaim not just our freedom of expression but the right to think as citizens. We need to back our own moral compass against the manufactured narratives of overwhelming threat. Not just reason and rationality but feelings and emotions are being delegitimised by the spectacle of organised crime and violence. By condemning us to deliberate on triviality we are infantilised to look for paternal protection. Democracy today needs the right to think and feel and trust in the morality of our collective common sense.
Ajay Gudavarthy is an associate professor at the Centre for Political Studies, JNU.