By Swapan Dasgupta
If the aim of those who organised the convention of secessionists in Delhi on October 21 was to court both notoriety and publicity, they can look back with satisfaction on a very successful venture. Middle India may have been absolutely appalled and horrified at the spectacle of pro-Pakistan Hurriyat leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani preaching his divisive message in the heart of the Capital, flanked by the intellectual cheer-leader of the anything-to-offend brigade, Arundhati Roy. However, the organisers weren't interested in winning over Indian opinion. Their objective was propagandist.
First, the convention on azadi organised by the Committee for the Release of Political Prisoners—which seems a Maoist front—was meant to signal a grand unity of those seeking the vivisection of the Indian Union. They included the Kasmiri secessionists, the rump of the Khalistani movement, the separatists from the North-eastern states and, of course, the Maoists who are trying to create the conditions which will allow the secessionists to succeed. The event was a gathering of political rogues and was meant to be that way.
Secondly, it came as no surprise to the organisers that a convention of this nature organised in Delhi attracted vocal opposition. I can fully sympathise with those Kashmiri Hindus who were agitated by the presence of someone who created the conditions for the horrible ethnic cleansing of Hindus from the Kashmir Valley in 1990. However, it is also a fact that the organisers were banking on spirited protests against Geelani to elevate a vicious message into a debate over free speech and democracy. The ease with which some TV channels fell into the trap was indicative of the larger gullibility of India's liberal establishment.
In a lucid intervention on the subject, Leader of Opposition Arun Jaitley has argued that the freedom of speech is not absolute but also governed by other laws. The Indian Penal Code, for example, does not extend the principle of free speech to utterances calculated to provoke enmity between castes and religion and undermine the integrity of the state. In the past, the latter offence used to be called sedition but in the contemporary world that usage is rare but in essence the secessionists and their supporters seem to be guilty of that horrible offence—if prosecuted and convicted by a court of law.
Following Jaitley's intervention, Home Minister P. Chidambaram said that the authorities are examining the speeches to see they violated the law. In principle this is right. If Varun Gandhi can first be jailed and prosecuted for his alleged hate speech during the 2009 election campaign, there are grounds to press for charges against Geelani and Arundhati Roy. According to the report in Pioneer, the Booker Prize winner told the gathering: "India needs Azadi from Kashmir and Kashmir from India. It is a good debate that has started. We must deepen this conversation and am happy that young people are getting involved for this cause which is their future." It is a different matter that the "conversation" consisted mainly of treacherous elements shouting slogans, including "Azadi ka matlab kya? Lal ilaha il illah".
Actually, the speech of Arundhati Roy was more incendiary than Geelani who repeated the hoary line about "self-determination" and tripartite talks to hammer out a solution. In fact, Geelani stressed he wasn't against India but wanted a "free" Kashmir where—and he was at pains to spell this out— Islamic strictures against consuming alcohol would not apply to the minorities.
Whether the policemen who examine the transcripts of the convention will also feel that Arundhati crossed the Lakshman rekha between the acceptable and unacceptable is unknown. The irony is that a publicity-conscious pamphleteer would love to be prosecuted for sedition and, preferably, even arrested. The spectacle of a small, innocent-looking, soft-spoken woman who is a celebrity in the Noam Chomsky-loving classes in the West being led away by burly, pot-bellied policemen will make for wonderful TV and is calculated to whet the appetites of all who believe that India's democracy is counterfeit. It will have a global impact and may even bring forth a petition calling for her release signed by the who's who of the Manhattan establishment. Maybe President Obama will also chip in.
An Arundhati Roy charged with sedition for daring to question India's 'occupation' of Kashmir will be the best thing to have happened to a movement that never quite succeeded in putting the stone throwers on par with the Palestinian intifada. The attempts to transform the disturbances in Kashmir into an international human rights issue has failed mainly because India has too many better things to offer. The last thing we now need is to make Arundhati Roy into India's Liu Xiaobo and Geelani into the Taliban-loving Amnesty International's "prisoner of conscience."
Jaitley is right about the law and the Constitution but he is wrong about the political wisdom of prosecuting secessionists for non-violent offences. Geelani routinely makes speeches in Srinagar that are far more provocative than the one he made last Thursday in Delhi. The fact that he made it in Delhi doesn't worsen the offence. Both Srinagar and Delhi are, after all, in India.
Secessionism has to be countered both militarily and through arguments. An argumentative environment is India's best advertisement against intolerant Maoism and Islamism.