Revisiting Sedition Law in the Light of Tagore's Critique of Nationalism
Dissent has always been the foundation on which society stood. The disagreement with settled assumptions paved the way for altering orthodox norms leading to the evolution of a healthy democracy. In the absence of an encouraging environment culminated by the State, the raison d’être of the constitutional grant of speech gets destroyed. Thus, the onus of discourse of divergent views is placed on the State, which is prevented from clamping down free expression. Having been given such an inclusive Constitution, the burden fell on the Courts to preserve these rights. Juxtaposed with the offence of sedition, a form of ‘conscripted nationalism’ has evolved, which takes the form of an antiquated cult. With the mandatory standing during the National Anthem, the Courts have made sure that facets of a liberal democracy can be curtailed in order to instill national allegiance. Any different view from the government’s acceptable notion automatically provides a badge of being an ‘anti-national’. The concepts of sedition and nationalism are thus, inextricably linked as both postulate an exaggerated notion of love for the nation. The crime of disaffection against the State has led to a linear thought of national pride being propagated. The usage of this crime to browbeat freedoms has been running rampant. A ‘fervent’ sense of patriotism is being portrayed through this crime that isn’t required and was foreseen by Rabindranath Tagore years ago.
The Courts have had their fair share of ambivalence in reading nationalistic ideologies into legislations and the State using sedition as a tool in enforcing them. The paper argues the need of reforming the sedition law in light of the imposition of nationalism by the Courts and persecution by the State vis-à-vis Tagore’s critique of nationalism and interlinks its relevance to the contemporary times.
TAGORE ON NATIONALISM.
It is ironic that Tagore, the composer of the National Anthem, condemned the creation of a need-based mechanism and applicability of a singular nationalistic thought. Nationalism evolved as a tool of binding people across spectrums in order to protest against a foreign power. It was necessary to encompass a patriotic emotion to demand for freedom. However, manifestations of moral degeneracy and loss of diversity among voices grew, making the nation powerful at the cost of excessive harmonization. The State started encouraging a parochial sense of loyalty, which celebrated a single story and compromised on free speech. This part elucidates the reasons behind Tagore’s denunciation.
First, he draws attention towards the loss of diversity through the façade of harmonization. Tagore believed that no-one form of nationalism could fit this diverse mix of religions and caste. He agreed to the fact that earlier it was necessary to unite people to preserve geographical boundaries. But, even then people were unified in their area of segregation. Time had blurred these boundaries to the limit that they had now become obstacles reeking of tradition. From respecting every diverse view to propagation of a single perspective has destroyed this ‘moral spirit of combination’. Moral adjustments have been replaced with unimaginable absurdities of idolatry of the country.
Tagore defined a nation as an ‘economic’ union that has been organized as a political body in order achieve a mechanical purpose. He believed that this loss of aesthetics and culture has led to a void social existence. The economic exploitation kills the pursuits of people and leads them to acquire a political orientation. The nation then encompasses masses that are fighting for power and self-interest. This has promoted greed and conceit in the façade of nationhood. The society, which is the amalgamation of personal relationships, drains away in oblivion to be replaced by a mechanical milieu. This excessive commercialization of nationalism encouraged a ‘soulless’ country built on profit and power.
The overemphasis on the political aspects of a country rather than the moral qualities of an individual, made people believe that the ‘nation is superior to the people’. The imposition of patriotic ideals over individual self-expression obscured autonomy and created a divide of duties. Citizens were supposed to prioritize national allegiance over their personal duties. Tagore expresses this danger through the analogy of a gambler for whom his familial obligations subsume a secondary position. Hence, for citizens expressing nationalism, their imperative inter-personal relationships suffer. Thus, the nature of duties of an individual gets characterized according to the popular will. The individuality is lost among the waves of majoritarianism.
In order to highlight the issue of crowd psychology, Tagore uses India’s example. He believed that India had joined the bandwagon of nationalism in order to compete with foreign ideals. The problem with this approach was the stark difference between the social set-ups. An imitation of the West would only lead to the compromise of a country’s culture and heritage, the hallmarks of history. Mere emulation would lead to stifling the identity of the nation, which was built on years of perseverance. Hence, mob mentality would lead to the loss of individuality and be utilized by people in power. Nationalism, a tool of collective interest would lead to suppression of voices and dissents.
Tagore had witnessed the World Wars while expressing this critique, and he knew the disaster of promoting the glory of the nation. The loss of diversity and individualism in a commercial set-up that fostered pack-mindedness was the reason on which nationalism failed.
THE ‘SEDITIOUS’ INTERPRETATIONS.
The Courts have evolved problematic interpretations of nationalism and the State has then been using sedition to enforce this erroneous notion. This part will interlink Tagore’s grounds of critique with the vague stances taken by the Court in defining nationalism and then, highlight the dangers posed.
In interpreting ‘Hindutva’ in an election speech, the Court held that this word isn’t merely related to religion, but to the entire Indian heritage. It was to be synonymous with ‘Indianization’ that would lead to the development of a uniform culture. Linking words associated with the majority religion to the entire country, the fear of the loss of diversity resurrects. The next time, someone criticizes the majority religion; the speech could be held as seditious as it excites feelings against the country. The National Anthem case  is an epitome of the State being superior to the individual. Violating basic individual self-expression, the Court in the name of ‘committed nationalism’ strips citizens of their ‘right to choice’. Sitting during the anthem would lead to charges of sedition, as now it represents a collective expression of loyalty towards the nation. In ordering for the demolition of the Visceral Lodge, the Supreme Court hinted at the aspect of commercialism. It held that the lodge has been “a mute witness to the destruction of Indians, their subjugation as subjects of the British Empire”. Based on this historic evidence, it ruled that the Government and the citizens had no duty in preserving this monument. Additionally, it held that this was the perfect opportunity to forget the past and to integrate into the democratic world. Moreover, if anyone opposed, they would lose the country its unity and integrity.
Sedition has a very widened scope in construing ‘disaffection’ against the Government. The Apex Court had extended the applicability to “acts involving intention or tendency to create disorder or incitement to violence.” The State had used this ‘tendency’ of causing disorder to persecute people who were sloganeering and dissenting against the Government. Additionally, although the JNU incident was hateful and contemptuous, it had not evoked violence or a law and order scenario, resulting in the non-fulfilment of the ingredients of the offence. This threat of sedition was causing a form of self-censorship by producing a ‘chilling-effect’ on the fundamental right of free speech. Additionally, the vague interpretations of ‘nationalism’ have provided the State a much easier route.
In light of this, the arguments of self-preservation of the State and constitutional patriotism arise. The paper highlights the need of revisiting the sedition law despite these arguments as it provides the State a sword to threaten people who challenge its power without inciting violence and instead, manufactures affection for the nation. Truly, in a democracy, singing the same song isn’t required anymore. The response to dissent shouldn’t be curtailment but engagement. Thus, the aim should be striking the ‘arbitrary action’ down. Tagore had foreseen this long ago, and in the world of free speech it becomes imperative to revisit both the interpretations of ‘sedition’ and ‘nationalism’. England, the nation who gave us these crimes, has itself repealed it. It is time we delve into this arcane offence in the era of expression and individuality. The Courts have always had the transformative power to remedy legacies of injustice and this seems the correct time to enforce this ability.
[The author is a fourth-year law student at the National University of Juridical Sciences.]
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