Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel. The current rant against ‘anti-national’ slogans at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) highlights the abundance of scoundrels among Indian politicians and television anchors. The notion that there can be only one concept of what constitutes a nation, and that every other view is anti-national, is intellectually empty at best and authoritarian at worst.
Agitating students of JNU have called Maqbool Bhat and Afzal Guru (Kashmiris executed for murder) martyrs, and attacked the notion that India’s judicial system delivers justice. Some demand Kashmiri selfdetermination. Some even call for the break-up of India.
Gun vs Slogan
So what? You may disagree with these student slogans. But since when have students been a politically correct crowd mouthing patriotic hosannas? In all free societies, students have espoused all sorts of extreme positions, and must be free to do so. That is why they are called free societies.
Unfree societies are different. Communist China cracked down on Tiananmen Square and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt cracked down on Tahrir Square. But American students were at the very forefront of opposition to the Vietnam War. They rejected the government’s notion of patriotism.
Their right to dissent was not questioned even by those who condemned their views.
Oxford University is very establishment. But in 1933, the Oxford Union held a famous debate on the motion, ‘This house will in no circumstances fight for its King and country.’ The Union voted for the motion by 275 votes to 153. This ‘Oxford Pledge’ was later adopted by students at the universities of Manchester and Glasgow. This sent shock waves through Britain. The students were denounced as morons, cowards, anti-nationals and communist sympathisers.
But none dreamed of arresting the students for sedition. That puts in perspective the authoritarian interpretation of sedition by the NDA government. Worse is the ranting of media stars who ask in outrage how any student dare call for the break-up of India. They seem singularly ignorant of what a free society means.
The Scottish National Party (SNP) seeks to break away from Britain and form a separate Scottish nation. Are SNP leaders jailed for sedition? No. They have an honourable place in society, have been granted one referendum, and may soon get another.
Welsh nationalists also seek a separate Welsh country. Nobody dreams of jailing them.
In Canada, the Parti Québécois has long demanded independence for Quebec province, and this is treated not as sedition but a legitimate democratic demand. In Spain, the state of Catalonia has long had powerful secessionist parties, which in the 2015 state election won 47.8 per cent of the vote. The Spanish government strongly opposes Catalan independence, but doesn’t jail dissenters. France does not jail Corsican secessionists. The list goes on and on. Free societies do not jail non-violent secessionists.
India does. And that raises the question whether India wants to be a free society. And if not, why not.
Spain tolerates non-violent Catalans, but cracks down on terrorists using guns to create an independent Basque territory in the north. Britain cracked down on the Irish Republican Army (IRA), even as it gave legitimacy to the SNP. Free societies come down hard on those using or inciting violence, but bestow legitimacy on people advocating revolutionary change — even secession — through peaceful means.
Son of a Gun
They can hang a Maqbool Bhat for murder, but should not jail a JNU student leader for mere sloganeering.
India’s sedition law has been misused grossly for jailing a Tamil folk singer, sundry cartoonists, demonstrators against the Kudankulam power station, and even some people who simply ‘liked’ a Facebook post.
To me, these are all anti-national acts for which those in power should be held accountable. I reject the anti-national definition of the government.
In 1971, millions of Bangladeshis fled to India after a Pakistani Army crackdown. The Press Information Bureau (PIB) organised a trip for journalists to the refugee camps in West Bengal. I went for The Times. The PIB complained to my editor that I had asked “anti-national questions”.
I asked my editor what an anti-national question was. He had no idea. The PIB staff had urged us to ask questions like “Is the Pakistan Army bad?” and “Are you happy to get refuge in India?” I went much further. I asked whether the influx of refugees had caused job tensions with local people. Whether it had caused any Hindu-Muslim tension. And whether the refugees might abandon the camps and inundate Kolkata.
These questions, apparently, marked me as a traitor. The Times, sadly, played safe by not publishing my report. Then, two months later, the government organised a War Correspondents course for journalists, since a war with Pakistan was clearly coming. The Times nominated me for the course. The government rejected me, saying I was too anti-national to be trusted.
Ever since, I have seethed with rage at politicians, officials and media stars who define what patriotism is and condemn all others as anti-national. I know fully what is and what isn’t a free society. Patriotism is not merely the last refuge, but the first refuge of many scoundrels.