On Thursday, October 3, a sedition case was lodged against 49 eminent personalities who had written and signed an open letter to the prime minister, urging him to take swift and sure action against the perpetrators of mob lynching.
The letter, which was released on July 23, called for “exemplary punishment” to those involved in this “heinous” crime.
A First Information Report against all the signatories was filed in Muzaffarpur after an order was passed by Chief Judicial Magistrate Surya Kant Tiwari on August 20, on a petition filed by advocate Sudhir Kumar Ojha.
Ojha had alleged that the letter “tarnished the image of the country and undermined the impressive performance of the Prime Minister” and accused its writers of “supporting secessionist tendencies.”
The 49 signatories include prominent social activists – none of whom is a stranger to accusations of sedition – along with writers, professors, artists, actors, singers, filmmakers, and doctors.
Ironically, a closer reading of the open letter reveals that its writers stand for all that the government and its cheerleaders claim to stand for too, except perhaps their professed love for peace.
They begin by calling themselves “peace loving and proud Indians” who are concerned about the spate of “tragic events” in their “beloved country”.
The letter then goes on to state facts, backed by proof. It reads: “The Constitution says India is a secular socialist democratic republic, where citizens of all religions, ethnicities, genders and castes are equal.” This can be verified.
It then calls for the lynching of minorities to be stopped immediately. One could perhaps argue that all lynching must be stopped immediately, but to each, his own. It cites National Crime Records Bureau statistics, saying there have been 840 instances of atrocities against Dalits in 2016. It then cites the Fact Checker India database to say there have been 254 reported communal hate crimes between January 1, 2009, and October 29, 2018, leading to 91 deaths and 579 injuries. It then says 90 percent of these attacks were reported after the BJP came to power in May 2014.
While acknowledging that the prime minister criticised the prevalence of lynching, they asked for this to be reflected in the law of the land. Lynching, the letter says, should be declared a non-bailable offence and punishment should be extended to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.
The letter then makes a statement that Modi fans would be hard-pressed to disagree with: “The name of Ram is sacred to many in the majority community of India.” Various videos have surfaced over the last few years in which lynch mobs have screamed an invocation to Ram as they go about their brutal acts. Surely it isn’t an act of sedition to point out that a name that is held sacred by many in the country ought not to be used as an accompaniment to acts of violence? Surely, the prime minister and all those who believe his “performance” has been “impressive” will agree that this name should not be desecrated?
Perhaps pre-empting the ramifications of publishing an open letter, its writers note that “there is no democracy without dissent” in their closing paragraph, and state that people should not be termed “anti-national” and “urban Naxal” for voicing their criticism of the government.
Just in case that was too subtle, they add, “Criticising the ruling party does not imply criticising the nation. No ruling party is synonymous with the country where it is in power. It is only one of the political parties of that country. Hence anti-government stands cannot be equated with anti-national sentiments.”
The same idea is articulated thrice in four sentences.
Perhaps everyone involved in filing the FIR is hard-pressed for time and not able to read a two-page letter in its entirety.
That is understandable when trolls are so hard-pressed for time they are not able to read past the headline before lashing out at the writer or speaker.
India has been ruled by various parties since 1947. Some of those have disintegrated. But the country’s borders have remained largely the same.
Before this country had borders, and was constituted entirely of warring kingdoms, large swathes of the land that is now within the sovereign owed allegiance to monarchs from different regions, and even different countries.
The insecurity of leaders and their supporters is understandable. They would not have come to power if they had not been able to depose their predecessors, and they will be out of power when they are deposed by their successors.
In a democracy, leaders are ushered into and driven out of power by the opinions of the public.
It is a pity that the opinion of one man and its validation by another are enough for 49 people to be accused of sedition, when they have spoken from their love of the nation and their dissatisfaction with its government.
More Columns by Nandini Krishnan:
Why the Diaspora has so much love to give
Hindi debate: We are all obsessed with homogeneity
We are choking the earth
When Kamal Haasan endorsed harassment
The Dalai Lama and the death of humour
The delusionary Indian intellectual
India's culture of worship has to end
the author of Invisible Men: Inside India's Transmasculine Networks (2018) and Hitched: The Modern Woman and Arranged Marriage (2013). She tweets @k_nandini. Her website is: www.nandinikrishnan.com