Until last week, not much was known about 21-year-old Amulya Leona from Chikkamangaluru, in Karnataka. Now she is a pin-up girl for secular India.
On Friday, at a rally in Bengaluru, on a stage shared by fiery but cautious leaders like Asaduddin Owaisi, Leona took the mic and said Pakistan Zindabad (Long live Pakistan) twice.
Owaisi and others intervened.
Leona seemed to have understood the implications of her words — even if they were only two, the name of a country and a wish — and shouted Hindustan Zindabad as a balancing act perhaps.
What the BJP is reacting to then is not sedition so much as the transforming potential of free-speech
By this time the mic had been snatched from her, but Leona gamely stuck on and added other countries like Afghanistan and Bhutan to her list of benefaction. It was rather clear she liked to be on stage. When she was taken away to a magistrate on charges of sedition, she seemed content that her plan worked and she held up her fingers in a V sign, which Winston Churchill, the prime minister of the country that wrote India’s sedition law, popularised in 1941 when the allies began their campaign in the Second World War: a very colonial gesture when you come right down to it.
Leona has been sent to judicial custody for 14 days, the legal gestation period, it appears, before an aspirant could be crowned a revolutionary. Before the “zindabad” speech, Leona was only a social activist. But she had been consistently and with what can be only called an incendiary righteousness that brooks no dissent, staging protests against the regressive and discriminatory Citizenship Amendment Act.
But strictly speaking, if you wish a neighbouring country a long life, is it sedition?
Despite India’s ongoing problems with Pakistan including border skirmishes and the accusations that Pakistan affords refuge to terrorists, there is no clear cut announcement from the Indian government that that beleaguered country has been officially designated an “Enemy Nation”.
Section 124A of Indian Penal Code says: “Whoever, by words, either spoken or written, or by signs, or by visible representation, or otherwise, brings or attempts to bring into hatred or contempt, or excites or attempts to excite disaffection towards, the Government established by law in India, shall be punished with imprisonment for life, to which fine may be added, or with imprisonment which may extend to three years, to which fine may be added, or with fine.”
The formulation of this law was done in 1860 when the British were in power. It would be self-defeating to apply to the Indian citizen provisions of this law to protect a government elected by him/her. Leona is not the only one to have been sent to jail on flimsy charges of sedition in recent times. Notably, Sharjeel Imam, who was making speeches at Shaheen Bagh — an area in Delhi that has been an epicentre of anti-CAA protests — and Kanhaiya Kumar a couple of years before that, among others, have been victims of the sedition virus.
It’s not clear exactly how many. Kashmir is bound to have scores of people charged with sedition. So would the northeast areas of India. In Uttar Pradesh and Karnataka, ruled by chief ministers slave-driven by the urge to show their loyalty to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, sedition is a pretty popular disciplinary measure.
Why is the BJP so quick to suspect citizens of seditious activities? Indeed, is Amulya Leona worth the trouble? In earlier interviews, before she became the Joan of Arc of the week, she says she is a student of English and psychology and that she is an English and Kannada translator.
Desire for glory
From her posts, her grasp of English does not justify the status of a translator that she has accorded herself. But that hardly matters in these days of self-empowerment: you are whatever you say you are on your Facebook profile.
Leona loves attention. In one interview, she says people like her are the leaders of the nation, and that the old people — presumably anyone over 30 — should move over. This is a very Greta Thunbergian principle at work: to take over the world virtually in your teens and rule.
At the bottom of such self-deification is a desire for power and glory. At one very basic level, too, the politics of the kind of rant that Leona and a good number of liberals who support her practice do not entertain opposition. The patriots and bigots on the Hindutva brigade who scream treason and enforce section 124A at the drop of a hat are the mirror images of that intolerance at the heart of India’s current divisive discourse.
What the BJP is reacting to then is not sedition so much as the transforming potential of free-speech. One way or the other, the Liberal, with his stilted ideas of correctness and the righteous rage of his cause, has the same problem. What unites the proto-fascist — a growing tribe — with the ‘progressive’ Indian is that the right to free speech, the one from which all other constitutional rights really flow, is defined so what they consider offensive is not articulated. And the fact is that there is no right to free speech without the right to offend.
Kerala, for instance, ruled by generally what is considered a progressive government, has sent to jail — for months now — Alan and Taha, two men in their 20s, for Maoist activities. Reading Mao or discussing that despot’s proverbs are not illegal in India. But in the light of the discussion above, it would be clear why Alan and Taha are not material for national debate: that will end up questioning the credentials of the Liberal.
Finding centrist space
Sooner or later India will have to find its centrist space if politics of schism, both on the right and the left, must cease. The Western media, say, the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Guardian, are awash with articles and opinions that justly condemn the BJP’s anti-secular policies.
It would be nice to see them commissioning an opinion piece by Modi. Putin has done it. Boris Johnson has done it. I see no reason why Modi can’t be requested to do one. That would be a commitment made on the international stage. It is not enough to accuse the right-wing government of India of divisive politics. That is easy; it is a safe stone that is flung from afar.
To make the Indian Right accountable, you need to draw them into the international debating stage, dominated by the Left. And here, either for want of imagination or the liberal fear that one would be affording a platform for the ‘wrong’ views, interphase is pre-empted. In one way of the other, the Divider-in-Chief syndrome associated with Modi and his team is at least partly shaped by Left’s fear of speech. So there, so here. In the Government vs Leona case, then, sedition is not the thing. At its heart, it is that old offensive thing, the free speech discourse.
— C.P. Surendran is a senior journalist based in India