Sedition charges are ridiculous and the Karnataka government has a lot of explaining to do.

Amnesty International is not a greenhorn and people are not stupid
Voices Opinion Tuesday, August 16, 2016 - 18:22

Amnesty International’s (AI) India Executive Director Aakar Patel is being rather disingenuous. He is miffed that AI’s Bangalore event last weekend to discuss the situation of Kashmiris now faces an FIR. “Merely organising an event to defend constitutional values is now being branded ‘anti-India’ and criminalised’ he has said adding that the filing of a complaint against them and registering a case of sedition shows ‘lack of belief and fundamental freedoms in India’.

Sedition charges are ridiculous and the Karnataka government has a lot of explaining to do. But Patel calling the event 'merely' one to share grief and loss is no less irresponsible. The ‘merely’ ship sailed a long time ago from the troubled state of Jammu and Kashmir where a war-like situation persists. And for that little detail of sans importance, India was celebrating 70 years of freedom (August 15th) at about the same time as the Bangalore event where azaadi (freedom) slogans were raised. Context is critical - it influences thinking.

Patel’s statement of AI's innocence is tantamount to getting on a roller-coaster ride and complaining about vertigo. Indians believe in the freedoms and values enshrined in their constitution which is precisely why groups like AI are invited to share their views including sometimes presenting a one-sided picture of a many-sided reality. Fishing in troubled waters is tolerated (not encouraged) in the hope that when you are extended a privilege you respect the respect shown to you and your organisation. 

At the Bangalore event things turned sour when slogans of ‘azaadi’ (freedom) were raised. Freedom of expression (FOE) is not slogan. It is a hard-won right in a democracy and the right to express one’s views comes with responsibilities especially for public personalities. There is a raging global debate on it and for us in the media the Charlie Hebdo slaughter in Paris last year is a grim reminder of the difficulties of absolutes. Between what is desired and what is possible, we now have bloodshed. There are other less gory examples. When you travel to the United States you sign a document stating you will not indulge in any act that is against America. Similar rules apply to all democracies. Few refuse to sign such documents citing FOE. Why, even when you apply for a club membership in India, there are rules. Obnoxious behaviour is not tolerated on grounds of FOE. If a few people shout about freedom randomly it is one thing. If it happens in a context, a platform or a setting, it takes on different proportions as happened in Bangalore. 

I find it difficult to believe that Patel and AI were unaware of what could happen. Maybe they are greenhorns, naïve enough to believe that wounds and emotions running through veins of generations of Kashmiris can be calmed by road shows around India and the presence of few policemen who were also invited to the  Bangalore event. But let us give them the benefit of doubt – India is a democracy, however faulty. Engaging with intelligent opposition makes democracies stronger and it is the job of lawmakers from all Indian political parties to differentiate between democrats and demagogues including those in their midst. That is one part. The other is people are not stupid and increasingly now, more alerted. Kashmir is on everyone's mind. 

The First Information Report (FIR) has been filed on the basis of a complaint by the Akhil Bharatiya Vidhyarthi Parishad (ABVP) which is the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) student wing. Students are also allowed to protest in a democracy - it is part of student life. Many students leaders across the world and in India have gone on to become successful politicians. Today's ABVP's protests in Bangalore calling for banning the United Theological College which organised the AI event is stupid, verging on the dangerous. Escalating this issue into one of national proportions - as I suspect both AI and ABVP desire - would be to bite the bait. Irresponsible and/or ambitious politicians across India's political spectrum must watch their words and actions. The world is watching. We are watching.

Police Inspector Ramesh Kumar has told The News Minute (TNM) that no member of AI has been named in the FIR which has been registered under Sections 142, 143 (unlawful assembly), 147 (rioting), 124a (sedition) 153a (promoting enmity) and 149 (common intent) of the IPC. Kumar has said a call will be taken on arrests only after investigations are complete. We will wait for their report and action, especially to see how they deal with their sedition charges. Time is not on the Karnataka government's side.

And this brings me to some final thoughts. In their press release on Monday, AI said towards the end of the event “some of those who attended raised slogans, some of which referred to calls for ‘Azaadi’ (freedom)." The human rights group further stated that as a matter of policy it does not take any position in favour of or demands for self-determination. In that case, in good faith it should have stoutly protected the seriousness of the event and its own professed neutrality and asked the police to escort the sloganeers out of the room. In the same note the word azaadi was placed within quotes - the fig leaf that never fails to to reveal more than it pretends to conceal. 

Finally, I have a bigger problem with AI than I have with ABVP. The former is an international human rights organisation with massive experience in handling sensitive matters on a global scale. It has global advice, a global voice and a global reach.  It should have known better. The ABVP is an Indian student organisation, noisy and unsophisticated and largely clueless about the import of their actions. I would even go so far as to say their action in Bangalore was plain dumb.  I do not say the same thing about AI. There are two scales of understanding at play here and now a monkey in the wrench in the form of a sedition charge. 

 

 

Note: The views expressed here are the personal opinions of the author.

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