Let’s not use the S word….by Pritish Nandy

We have almost perfected it, the Art of Intolerance. We cover it up by giving it many names. But the ugliest of them is the S word. What we don’t like or disapprove of, what’s politically inconvenient has now acquired a new description: Anti-national. In short, Sedition. A word we have begun to use indiscriminately.

Even Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen said so last week, while releasing a book on Binayak Sen, the renowned doctor who has spent most of his life treating the tribals in Chhattisgarh, among the poorest people in the region. You would have expected him to get a Padma Vibhushan for that. Instead, he was recently sentenced to life imprisonment for sedition. Yes, sedition. It’s a curious charge to be made against a person with such credentials. His crime? While treating his patients, he carried a letter or two from them to friends and family. Some of these patients, it’s now alleged, were Naxalites. What confirmed the crime, as per police records, is that when they raided Sen’s home, they found exactly what they expected — Marx and Lenin stacked beside Grey’s Anatomy. It was enough to cry treason.

By this argument any postman can be tried for sedition, any bookstall owner. Millions of intelligent, middle class Indians read Marxist literature and indulge their foolish fantasies that it’s still possible to have a political uprising where the poor can change the brutal and exploitative nature of our society, install a more just and equitable regime. You may as well make day dreaming into a criminal offence. From when has India proscribed imagination? And, more important, from when has it become seditious to read political literature of any kind? In fact, unless you read Marx, you will never figure why, despite its appealing ideology of social justice, Communism has failed everywhere.

But logic is the first casualty when it comes to politics. We are a nation in desperate search of villains. So, even a man like Sen, whose remarkable achievements are there for all to see, gets jailed for sedition. In effect, the Chhattisgarh police have done to Sen exactly what Dara Singh and his murderous goons did to another famous doctor, Graham Staines who worked among the poor tribals of Orissa, They beat him mercilessly and then set him and his two young sons, barely 10 and 6, on fire. What was his crime? Staines ran a leprosy mission and, apart from providing healthcare to the tribals, he was trying to educate them too. Dara Singh’s charge was the same: Staines was anti-national. Why? He was educating the tribals with the purpose of converting them. Sounds exactly like the Chhattisgarh police’s charge against Sen, that he was trying to make Naxalites out of them.

Arundhati Roy has also been accused of sedition because of her views on Kashmir. I have never agreed with her but to accuse her of sedition is absolute nonsense. The issues she has raised are certainly worth thinking about, even if we choose to reject them outright. The very fact that they are not part of the hysterical majority view makes them that much more important. For democracy is not only about accepting the majority view. It’s also about respecting minority views, however wrong they may appear to be. That’s why dissenters exist, to prise open new windows of our mind, as quickly as the political Establishment tries to shut them down. If such views didn’t exist we would remain forever slaves to the dominant political wisdom of our time. Change will never occur.

The Marxists are equally guilty. They harassed Jack Preger, also a remarkable doctor who set up his clinic in a Calcutta slum and worked among pavement dwellers. He treated them free, started schools for their children, and eventually became an iconic figure among the city’s poor. Even Mother Teresa hailed his work. But the Left Front did its best to throw him out. They jailed him for overstaying his visa, forced him into a tiny cell with hardened criminals, rats and roaches. He too was labelled anti-national.

What is it about us that we call such people anti-national? Is it because they represent the constituency of the absolute poor? Or is it because they shame us all by doing the right things? Why is it that we get so angry when Arundhati Roy raises issues that we feel are beyond political debate? Is it seditious to do so in a country that’s so boastful of its democratic traditions? Is it wrong to question what we accept as political verities? And, finally, why is every act of goodness seen as a threat to the nation? India belongs to each of us who live and work here. Surely we all have the right to see it in our own light.

No, patriotism is not about conforming to the Establishment view. It never was. It’s about bringing in change. And if you charge every agent of change with sedition all you will be left with is callow conformists.


14 Responses to “Let’s not use the S word….by Pritish Nandy”

  1. Recall Karunanidhi and his anna dravidian movement being as anti national as they could get with their anti hindi stance and support of the LTTE. In fact, he even read an elegy for a slain LTTE leader in front of a smiling Sonia. Little wonder this bandicoot was not charged with sedition!

  2. Mr. Nandy,

    Here is a refresher of a piece of relevant history. I am sure you don’t think Tilak and Gandhi were day dreamers. I am also sure, as an intellectual (although a poet) you are as distressed and appalled by the state of affairs in WB as the common man in Bengal is today.

    There are two outstanding historical precedences of cases of sedition. Those against Lokmanya Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Mahatma Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi.

    (I believe, if these two had tried their methods in Mao’s China, Stalin’s Russia or Hitler’s Germany they would have been executed without a trial. However, in India, under the genderless colonial regime, both Tilak and Gandhi were sentenced to short gaol terms.)

    An interesting difference in how Tilak failed and Gandhi succeeded in their resistance is in their attitudes.

    When Tilak was tried and sentenced, both in 1897 and 1908, he argued his case trying to to prove that he had not broken the law. He called himself a patriot, a nationalist, a reformist et al but failed to convince the jury or the judge. He was sentenced in both the cases.

    On the other hand, Gandhi never defended himself. He resisted the law. His refrain was rather biblical. He believed that the law was a symbol of the evil of the Britsh regime. He refused to recognise the intent of the law.

    Gandhi, in a way, terrorized the hypocrat brits who were pretending that they were only maintaining colonial order.

    Here is an extract of Gandhi’s statement in teh court:

    Mahatma Gandhi was charged with sedition in 1922 for his views in Young India. At the trial he said, “I have no desire whatsoever to conceal from this court the fact that to preach disaffection towards the existing system of government has become almost a passion with me… Sedition, in law, is a deliberate crime… but it appears to me to be the highest duty of a citizen.” Inspiringly — displaying the rare commitment to the liberal values that were the founding ideas of this nation — he went on to say, “Section 124 A, under which I am happily charged, is perhaps the prince among the political sections of the Indian Penal Code designed to suppress the liberty of the citizen… If,” he continued, “one has no affection for a person or system, one should be free to give the fullest expression to his disaffection, so long as he does not contemplate, promote, or incite violence… Some of the most loved of India’s patriots have been convicted under it. I consider it a privilege, therefore, to be charged under that section.”



    • Thanks for this…enjoyed this comment much! charges levied on Gandhi cannot be forgotten..

      • Sharmila,

        Charges on Gandhi were perfectly justified. In the Indigo planters’ refusal to cooperate, Gandhi admitted that he was guilty as charged. He refused to pay any fines and penalty and asked for the full term of whatever imprisonment was applicable. The judge released him with a token gesture.

        The point is, inciting non-cooperation against a person or a system is inevitable when the person or system is evil.

        Gandhi was resisting the law, not the judge.

        The law that is applied against Binayak Sen is equally applicable to every person who is caught within the territorial boundaries of India. The sedition law is evil. For our own good selves and anyone who we care for, it must be repealed with one voice.

        As far as the sedition law is concerned, the law as well as the conditions in which Gandhi decried it then and today in 2010 are the same.

        Law is not a subjective luxury. Anyone who has been in a sessions court and witnessed the farce there would agree with me.

  3. And yes by the way, the S word that I’d gladly use on this page is Sharmila!


  4. Sharmila,

    Am away all morning and noon for the second day of my John Adair’s adventures in leadership.

    Back in the evening probably in the closing hours of your day!



    • Have fun ! tell us all about it…

      • Sharmila,

        John Adair’s stuff is fun. He was among the stars of RAMS Sandhurst where the whos who of the world are educated.

        Apart from his Action Centered Leadership, we discussed T&S Continuum, McGregors X & Y and Abraham Maslow.

        I turned the theories around for a change. Instead of asking the team to work them on the companies I asked them to try them on their own lives.


        1. List a purpose, aim and objective that you wish to achieve this year.

        2. Write a program with a timeline to meet your targets.

        3. Write a plan B

        4. Prioritize the list.

        5. List the skills and resources you need

        6. Describe the opportunities that will make them happen

        7. Design a process flow chart for creating the opportunities

        8. Set the standards

        9. Write an action plan and KPI/KRA

        10. Carry out a risk assessment of the plan

        11. Select or design an assurance model for making it happen.

        It is easy to do this for the company where the policies and systems are already in place.

        It is testing when one has to do it assuming back-up and agreement of all the stake-holders at home!

        Well, it was fun. Some of the delegates were quite imaginative!

  5. Sharmila,
    I wonder ….why a man with such credentials got engaged with such a criminal act..? India has postal services available through out the country…if I am not wrong…
    then why did he choose to be a “postman” for some selected ones..?who happens to be engaged into some activities against the Country….
    The spying business always has been flourished since medieval times….many nobles engaged in noble professions were actually the spies in disguise or they were the civilians appointed to help out in spying…so no one doubt them for a moment because of their repute and profession….
    Hope the one discussed above is not such a case…
    A genuine…innocent person shall never be punished under any charge…and a traitor under any guise shall never go unpunished and free….so i believe…

  6. MonaLisa – Good morning! The naxalites are in hiding, they don’t have a postal address.! But, yes, you are right, lets hope the innocent goes unpunished, but hey, this is India where justice is a sham!!

    • Good Morning… Sharmila,
      Well…! In India Justice could be a big sham…But In this case …to work for Naxalites…as their mailman..is not an innocent act…either…no wonder that Dr. is behind bars…
      I wonder …why Mr. Nandy sympathise so much with a guy like this..!? Or…does he sympathise with Naxalites and Maoists and ppl helping them in general…!? Do Bongs have soft corner for (color)Red in general…!? 🙂

  7. Or the Naxalites are sitting in jail and their correspondence gets scrutinized..

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