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Isn’t dissent the essence of democracy?


A charge of sedition has been brought up against Arundhati Roy following some statements she made at a meeting in Delhi supporting the demand for Kashmiri “azadi” (variously interpretable, secession from the Union being one).

No evidence has come to light that she intended to either engage in or incite violence-provisos integral to a charge of sedition. It is her case that she only reiterated what thousands of Kashmiris have been demanding everyday over the last many months in the cities and bylanes of the Valley.

I outlined my understanding of the Kashmir question at some length recently in an article titled “Kashmir Now or Never.” It formed the “cover story” of the July-August 2010 issue of the journal, Communalism Combat, and was published by Kashmir Times as well. That article should make it clear that I do not share Ms. Roy's understanding of either the genesis of the Kashmir problem, its continuing career, or the merits of granting secession to the State.

I also do not subscribe to the view that the Indian state “annexed” the State in 1947 against the popular will, or has functioned as a “colonial power” since the Accession of the State to the Union of India. Or that Indian bad faith has been the only obstacle to a plebiscite in Jammu and Kashmir.

Also, despite my having critiqued over the years the viciousness of the doctrine of “nationalism,” I do not fully share Ms. Roy's anarchist view of the nation-state, or disregard the speculation on what alternatives offer themselves as achievable paradigms. Likewise, where I agree that the prevalence of Left-wing extremism in many parts of the north underscores the class-based character of the Indian state, I have been firmly of the view that armed struggle is not the answer to this malaise.

Having said that, I continue to have the highest admiration for Arundhati's courage of conviction and her commitment to millions of Indians — victims to a wide spectrum of iniquities. I have also been fully in agreement with her perceptions of how the state perpetuates conditions that not only breed violence but allow it to justify its own.

The critiques she has been voicing of the state are unique only to the extent of her genius to articulate them in telling formulations; as to substance, much of what she has said has been said by myriads of thinking people on the Left of the political spectrum.

It is interesting that the rubbishing of the state from the Right has rarely drawn the sort of official umbrage that critiques from the Left have tended to — a circumstance that speaks of the character of the Indian state. Were there to be any doubt on this, the recent leaks of the Radia tapes ought to put it to rest. The one theme that runs through them is proof of the common knowledge that in all decisions that matter with respect to appropriation of wealth in India, it is the corporates which rule the roost.

To the best of my knowledge, Arundhati has never openly either endorsed or advocated a praxis of violence. That an intellectual effort to comprehend the rationale of the violence that stalks the land should be construed as seditious activity is pitiful beyond words, and underlines the theoretical poverty of Indian democracy. Besides making it more and more intractable to find resolutions to people's problems.

The Constitution guarantees as a fundamental right to its citizens the freedom of expression, subject only to the caveat that the exercise of such freedom does not imperil national sovereignty or incite violence.

The regrettable fact is that over the last two decades the market-friendly policies have come to dominate the Indian ruling class concerns, and the expression of any views whatsoever inimical to those policies or their consequences for the vast mass of Indians (enshrined in many official documents as well, such as the Arjun Sengupta Report) has been tended to be seen as anti-national activity.

The charge of sedition slapped on Arundhati thus needs to be seen in a wider context of official intolerance, and seems like the culminating act of the expression of democratic insecurity and argumentative decline on behalf of the state. Recalling Emile Zola, I accuse the state of descending to a new low in democratic self-confidence and intellectual resource, and betraying the universal idealisms that had informed the making of the Constitutional Republic.

To Arundhati I say with Voltaire, that however I disagree with you, I will defend to death your right to disagree with me and with the official view of the Indian state and democracy as long as you do not either instigate violent opposition or become violent yourself.

I invite the state to study the First Amendment of the American Constitution, and to ponder over the fact that had American allegiance to a peaceful expression of dissent been as tenuous as it seems to have become here in India, a Michael Moore, a John Pilger, and a host of other opinion makers would long have been in jail. They are not. Just as the American state did not touch the mad man who was readying to burn several hundred copies of a book holy to a billion human beings.

 

To Arundhati I say with Voltaire, that however I disagree with you, I defend to death your right to disagree with me and with the official view of the Indian state and democracy till such time as you do not either instigate violent opposition or become violent yourself.

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