By Swapan Dasgupta
The battle over Binayak Sen's fate is just one facet of a culture war that has divided the middle classes. At stake is not merely rarefied concern over the relevance of a 150-year-old provision of the Indian Penal Code—the Sedition Law. There is a parallel clash over democracy and citizenship.
On the one hand are the middle class champions of muscular nationalism—the sort that sheds tears when Lata Mangeshkar sings 'wo mere watan ki logo', gets goose pimples on hearing Vande Mataram and waves the flag enthusiastically at cricket matches. They are a throwback to the 1950s but their biggest support comes from the generation that discovered nationalism with the Kargil war, the 26/11 Mumbai attacks and one-day cricket. They have a single-minded commitment to India's emergence as a global power and have little time for either separatists or Maoists. Unapologetically committed to achievement, their heroes tend to be the likes of Sachin Tendulkar, APJ Abdul Kalam, Mukesh Ambani and, in some cases, even Narendra Modi. They are the pillars of a resurgent Middle India.
Ranged on the other side are the equally middle class dissenters with an over-representation in the arts faculties, the media and among 'civil society' activists. Highly networked and blessed with refined tastes, their vision of India is centred on a fierce sense of rights and entitlements. If the other side strives for an opportunity society, their priority is a just and compassionate India. Inheritors of the spirit of 1968, they tend to be wary of what Romila Thapar derisively called 'syndicated Hinduism', preferring folk and non-conformist traditions. This may explain their greater sympathy for stone throwers in the Kashmir Valley, their romanticism of the Maoist insurgency and their celebration of an India that is permanently innocent and unspoilt.
Although a minusculity, this Fringe India enjoys high public profile courtesy endorsements by People Like Us and backing by the English language media. Their refined angst may irritate crowds who cheer the cricket team but they have the power to sway crusading IAS officers and activist judges. To the West, they are India's future.
A curious feature of this binary divide is that both groups enjoy an uneasy coexistence within the Indian Establishment, often cancelling each other out. The furore over Sen's conviction and subsequent quasi-exoneration by the Supreme Court epitomised this dysfunctionality. With the Law Minister promising to review the Sedition Law, it is possible that the clash between Middle and Fringe India may exacerbate.
The case for review rests partly on the disproportionate life sentence awarded to Sen who is at best a Maoist sympathiser and at worst a facilitator. But it is not the quantum of punishment that has agitated his supporters. They want the entire law scrapped for two reasons. Firstly, they insist that a law devised to maintain imperial control has no place in independent India. Secondly, it is argued that restrictions on contrarian views violate the argumentative rights of democratic India.
Although the Sen case is not really about the doctor's right to be an overground sympathiser of the underground but his role in assisting a violent, outlawed organisation, the two points are worth exploring.
First, should democracy be governed by absolute permissiveness of speech? There are statutory restrictions (dating back, ironically, to colonial times) against religious hate speech. Should this be scrapped? Should the state attitude to all opinion be totally non-judgmental? If not, what are the no-go areas that don't disfigure India's overall democratic personality?
Some libertarian supporters of Sen have argued that passive extremism, including calls for the violent overthrow of the state and secession, should be tolerated as long as there is no actual involvement with the real world. This implies that jihadi propaganda can be tolerated as long as those advocating violence aren't involved in any terror cell. They can legitimately remain detached motivators. The irony is inescapable: the Indian state must guarantee the use of democracy to destroy both democracy and itself.
Secondly, while there is a case for using discretion to distinguish between Arundhati Roy and Ali Shah Geelani, how should the law deal with Maoist insurgents committed to the violent overthrow of the state? The suggestion that there are existing laws to deal with criminal misconduct is disingenuous. Apart from the difficulties of the 'due process' in disturbed areas, reducing counter-insurgency to fighting crime presupposes a reactive approach. It undermines the role of pre-emption in counter-insurgency.
Finally, there is a much larger issue. Must democracy be a constant punching bag? Should the state have no right of self-defence?
These are concerns that go beyond Sen's eventual guilt or innocence. Yet, they can't be addressed by Fringe India alone. It's time the debate was joined by the other side too.