JNU sedition debate: Treason and untempered free speech are men with no country

I have been travelling in France and America over the past few weeks while the JNU controversy has been gathering steam in India. However, I have been able to follow the brouhaha via Twitter; but being outside the echo chamber in India, I have been able to consider how others react in similar situations.

First, going by my small sample of a few people I have known for some years, I get the feeling that the French have become more vocal in their feelings about their country and their way of life. After the major incidents of terrorism in the past year, I had wondered if the French would have changed their lifestyles and become more cautious. At least as far as I can tell, they haven’t. Even in the bitter cold of winter in Paris, they throng cafes and restaurants. But if you talk to them, there is resentment about the French-born, especially white people, who have taken to terrorism or been seduced by the vision of Islamic State. They are viewed as traitors to the cause.

Europeans don’t treat traitors well. The Vichy regime in World War II France, which collaborated with the occupying Nazis, is still remembered with contempt. I read somewhere about how French women who had fraternised with the Germans were humiliated in public, their heads were shaven, and they were even tarred and feathered for the crime of sleeping with the enemy. The name Quisling is evoked as the ultimate in betrayal, much like Mir Jafar.

JNU sedition debate: Treason and untempered free speech are men with no country

Protests at JNU. PTI

There is the case of Captain Delannoy, the Dutch mariner whose invading fleet was decimated by Travancore at the Battle of Colachel in 1741, and who then chose to join his vanquisher, Marthanda Varma, and serve out the rest of his life in the employ of the Indian kingdom. I was told by a historian that the descendants of Delannoy are still treated with contempt by the Dutch for this act of what they consider betrayal.

The story is no different in the US. The name Benedict Arnold comes to mind as someone held in utter contempt for betraying his country: he was a turncoat who sided with the British forces during their War of Independence. But his name stands for something vile today.

There is also the fictional account of the ‘The Man Without a Country’. A soldier, under trial for treason, declares in a moment of hot-headedness, that he never wished to hear the name America again. The judge obliges, and he is sentenced to be imprisoned on naval brigs out at sea for the rest of his life. The young man repents at leisure, but that single outburst is enough to condemn him forever. Yes, they take their country seriously.

The British poet Sir Walter Scott went one step further: quoth he –

Breathes there the man, with soul so dead,
Who never to himself hath said,

This is my own, my native land!
Whose heart hath ne'er within him burn'd,
As home his footsteps he hath turn'd,

From wandering on a foreign strand!
If such there breathe, go, mark him well;
For him no Minstrel raptures swell;
High though his titles, proud his name,
Boundless his wealth as wish can claim;
Despite those titles, power, and pelf,
The wretch, concentred all in self,
Living, shall forfeit fair renown,
And, doubly dying, shall go down
To the vile dust, from whence he sprung,
Unwept, unhonour'd, and unsung.

This should be the fate for India’s would-be ‘men-without-a-country’: to be unwept and unsung. But there are enough motivated actors who sing for their supper in supporting them.

Some people have made the rhetorical point that India is being harsh on the JNU rabble rousers, under some odd notions about freedom of speech. They ask, “what would the US do?”. So far as I can tell, neither Europeans nor Americans tolerate sedition very well. But the situation in India is not the same. There is a famous person, a harsh and theatrical critic of the Indian state (she believes communist terrorists are ‘Gandhians with guns’), who announced that she is a ‘global citizen’. But she travels on an Indian passport. The government would have been well within its rights to take umbrage and cancel her passport.

For a moment of levity, there is the possibly apocryphal story about how the papers for citizenship in the US – and that too they take very seriously, and it is a matter of pride for most Americans when some foreigner opts for it – included a question. It asked whether you’d “advocate the overthrow the government of the United States by sedition or violence”. Obviously, the intention was to deny citizenship to those who would advocate such by either sedition or violence.

It seems most applicants chose ‘sedition’! I imagine they felt violence was too… messy. Anyway, the authorities changed the wording of that question.

In the US, free speech is guaranteed by the First Amendment. And this is used by people with unpopular views, for example neo-Nazis. But people still constrain or even self-censor because they understand intuitively that free speech also has to be responsible speech. You do have the freedom to shout ‘Fire!’ in a crowded theatre, but as a responsible person, you will not. Many years ago, I wrote “The Problem with Fire” , about the film of that name, where I accused the actors of deliberately inciting divisiveness through irresponsible speech.

In India, ironically (thanks to that paragon of free speech, Nehru), the First Amendment to the Constitution constrains free speech, presumably because Nehru didn’t want to be judged by lesser mortals. And, irony heaped upon irony, it was Nehru’s daughter who suspended civil liberties during the Emergency. Which, if I remember right, was rather gleefully supported by the lefties. So for the Congress and their proteges at JNU to suddenly become champions of free speech is a bit disingenuous. Especially in light of a spate of political murders: for instance an RSS worker hacked to death in Kannur, Kerala; a BJP state VP shot to death in Bihar.

It is also the case that students are not held to different standards in other countries. There were pitched battles between police and college students during the Vietnam War, and the ‘long-haired hippies’ who protested what was an unwinnable war were often attacked with firehoses, dogs, and so forth: and if I remember right, they were only protesting government policy, not advocating the disintegration of their country. In an incident at Kent State University which later crystallised the anti-war movement, police fired on and killed several student protesters.

Thus the question of ‘what would America do?’ (in analogy with the equally silly question ‘what would Gandhi do?’ that is trotted out periodically) is meaningless. They treat those who advocate sedition with contempt, and India should do the same. There are limits to tolerance. Your free speech ends where my nose begins. And there is no compromise on respect for the nation.

My conclusion is that there is a deliberate attempt to keep India on the boil and Narendra Modi on the defensive. Just as the ‘award wapsi’ drama and the #intolerance meme were Bihar election specials, the Rohith Vemula fuss was meant to affect Hyderabad elections, the #Dadri brouhaha was meant to create communal riots, this JNU imbroglio is meant to divert attention.

Intriguingly, every time there is an effort by the government to advance its economic agenda, the MSM, the lefties and the Congress will bring up yet another non-story. There was a major #MakeinIndia initiative in Mumbai from 13 to 18 February . The JNU nonsense was intended to overshadow it, and it did. It too will disappear from the headlines this week: but mission accomplished, as the #DeepState and its minions like The New York Times and The Guardian have had enough flame-bait to peddle.

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Updated Date: Feb 21, 2016 11:46:40 IST

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