It is understandable that Rahul Gandhi has abruptly discovered that the age of democracy is over and that India is in the throes of authoritarian rule. It is customary for political leaders to overstate things and cry ‘wolf’ at the drop of a Gandhi topi. This is even more so when those affected are honoured members of the Congress ecosystem, notables who can be wheeled out on appropriate occasions to warn against ‘fascism’ and during elections to plead for voters to defeat ‘communal forces’ resoundingly.
I am of course referring to the former Congress President and MP for Wayanad’s tweet about a FIR involving a round robin letter signed by prominent intellectuals asking the Prime Minister to put an end to beef-linked lynchings. The FIR, registered by the police in Muzaffarpur in Bihar, wasn’t a decision of the local Bihar police who must have been quite bewildered. It was an order of a local court in response to a private prosecution against those who signed this modestly publicised petition, one of the many hundreds that the Prime Minister’s Office receives each day. The petitioner requested the lower court to file the signatories of the petition with sedition—a grave charge that cannot be used liberally. Although the matter is yet to be decided, the local court in its infinite wisdom deemed that the matter warranted adjudication. The FIR is presumably a first step in what the local judge has deemed is a fit case for the notables to answer.
I have no desire to either question the legality or the wisdom of the decision by the local court. There may be abstruse questions of law that need to be settled. Alternatively, it is possible that there are hidden facts about which most people—observing the matter from a distance—are unaware of. However, having registered these caveats—since I have absolutely no desire to be summoned to Muzaffarpur on the charge that I held the court in contempt, I have a different perspective. The prism through which I look at the incident is plain common sense.
Politically, I have little sympathy for the members of India’s liberal Establishment that put their names to the petition. They are habitually accustomed to protesting too much and at the same time being selective with their indignation. This is the nature of their politics. However, I do sincerely believe that the Constitution and, more important, the public culture of India gives everyone, including every Congress-inclined individual, the complete and uninhibited right (within the norms of decency of course) to express their views to either the Prime Minister or the citizens in a bazaar. Writing a letter to the Prime Minister runs the big risk that it may never be personally read by the intended recipient. But apart from this, we cannot put restrictions on what the Prime Minister should or should not see. Narendra Modi, or so we are informed, is habitually accustomed to browsing through social media. As such he doesn’t need to be insulated from blunt talk.
There is the danger that what the notables signed will be used by entities that want to paint India in the vilest of colours. That risk is permanent. There are individuals who have nothing better to do all day and night except unearth evidence to prove that India is worse than both Nazi Germany and Pol Pot’s Cambodia. Some of them may even be bankrolled by foreign entities. However, unless it can be demonstrated that some individuals are guilty of espionage, it will be improper to lump them with the charge of sedition. Sedition involves more than mere disloyalty but actually helping the enemies of both the Indian state and the Indian nation. In any case, like ‘fascism’ and ‘socialism’ or, for that matter, ‘scientific temper’—some of these terms find a place in the Indian Constitution—‘sedition’ is a loaded term that is not prone to any exact definition. It is, however, a lovely charge to hurl against those we dislike.
I don’t particularly like the politics of those who signed the letter to the Prime Minister. I am however friends with some of them because friendship is not based on the voting intentions of individuals. Sufficiently provoked I may even say they are being treacherous. However, not even in my wildest dreams will I suggest that they be hauled up before a court or a people’s tribunal and be punished for what they have said.
There are two reasons for my belief. First, I am an amateur stamp collector and regret the fact that if people don’t write enough letters, the postage stamp will become history very soon. That would be sad, although it would raise the long-term value of my collection.
The second reason is that I feel that every country needs a silly season. I will not elaborate this point because Indian politics lacks a sense of humour.
The writer is a senior journalist and Member of Parliament, being a presidential nominee to the Rajya Sabha