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M.N.Roy Memorial Lecture: Free Speech, Nationalism and Sedition by Justice AP Shah (retired)

20 April

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M.N. Roy Lecture by Justice A. P. Shah (retired) was delivered on the 19th April, 2017, at 5.30. PM at Speaker Hall, Constitution Club,Rafi Marg, New Delhi. The event was organised under the aegis of The Indian Renaissance Institute, New Delhi

[Short excerpt of the lecture / Full text is available in PDF below]

A. Introduction

“A parochial, selfish, narrow minded nationalism has caused so much misfortune and misery to the world. A mad and exaggerated form of this cult of nationalism is today running rampant....”

This statement made by M.N. Roy, as far back as 1942, may resonate with many even today, particularly in these times we live in. Good evening, Justice Chalmeswar, Mr. Pancholi and distinguished members of audience. It is a privilege and an honour to be here to deliver the M.N. Roy Memorial lecture today.

M.N. Roy was a leading intellectual and thinker, and an activist philosopher, who was deeply involved in the Humanist Movement. He was critical of the fundamentals of Indian nationalism and the ideology of nationalism in general, particularly in light of the rise of Fascism and Nazism and the outbreak of the Second World War. Roy left India during the earlier part of the First World War as a full-blooded nationalist, but changed his views after much reflection and new political experiences. He founded the Communist Party of Mexico in 1919, the first Communist Party outside Russia. During the second World Congress of Communist International, Roy helped formulate the famous Thesis on the National and Colonial Question by Lenin, although he disagreed with Lenin on the class composition of the leadership of the nationalist movement in colonies. Subsequently, on account of disagreements with Stalin, Roy returned to India in December 1930.

His return, however, was short lived. In July 1931, he was arrested on charges of sedition for the Bolshevik Conspiracy Case and tried in Kanpur Jail, without any open trial. He was sentenced to jail for 12 years, and was eventually released within six years at the age of 36. Thereafter, Roy joined the Congress, although he ultimately fell out with them on account of their reluctance to support the British to oppose fascism (which he considered to be a greater evil) in the Second World War.

After India became independent, Roy became a chief proponent of the idea of “radical humanism”, which he described as “a new humanism”. He continued writing on nationalism and on its economic and political aspects. In 1944, he drafted a “Constitution of Free India”, where he included a chapter on “Declaration of Fundamental Rights” which clearly stated that a “right to revolt against tyranny and oppression is sacred”.

B. The Situation Today

Roy’s ideas thus covered a broad range of topics, including speech and dissent. In fact, that is exactly why I have chosen to speak on Nationalism, Free Speech and Sedition for this memorial lecture.

Today, we are living in a world where we are forced to stand for the national anthem at a movie theatre, we are told what we can and cannot eat, what we can and cannot see, and what we can and cannot speak about. Dissent, especially in the university space, is being curbed, and sloganeering and flag raising have become tests for nationalism. We have a 21-year old University student who is subject to severe online hate, abuse, and threats, only because she dared express her views.

In any society, at any given point of time, there will always be people holding divergent views. Such views are integral and inevitable in a healthy, functioning democracy. Nowhere has this been better expressed than by the judgment of the Bombay High Court in F.A. Picture International v CBFC, where the Court said:

“History tells us that dissent in all walks of life contributes to the evolution of society. Those who question unquestioned assumptions contribute to the alteration of social norms. Democracy is founded upon respect for their courage. Any attempt by the State to clamp down on the free expression of opinion must hence be frowned upon”

Unfortunately, however, our institutions of learning are under attack today and there is a concerted attempt to destroy any independent thought. Today, sadly, in this country I love, if anyone holds a view that is different from the government’s “acceptable” view, they are immediately dubbed as “anti-national” or “desh-drohi”. This marker of “anti-national” is used to intimidate and browbeat voices of dissent and criticism, and more worryingly, can be used to slap criminal charges of sedition against them.

All these factors have led me to choose the present topic to generate further discussion and debate. I think it is all the more important to discuss and talk about nationalism.

C. What is Nationalism?

At the very outset, I would like to caution against, what the celebrated Nigerian author Chimamanda Adichie terms, the “danger of a single story” – the danger of understanding an idea only from a single perspective and ignoring the diversity of views present. Mridula Mukherjee points out the nuances in the word “nationalism” and how it encompasses the ideas of progressive nationalism, a revolutionary pro-people nationalism, and a regressive and jingoistic nationalism.

Hitler’s nationalism, after all, was very different from Gandhi and Nehru’s nationalism. The European conception of nationalism, developed from the days of the Treaty of Westphalia and in the age of imperialist expansion, focused on the enemy within, whether the Jew or the Protestant. In contrast, the Indian conception of nationalism, developed as an opposition to an external imperialist British state, was more inclusive in uniting the people against them. This was then, an “anti-colonial nationalism, where the primary identity of an Indian was not their religion, caste, or language, but their unity as equals in their demand for freedom. It is thus important to remember that there is no single overarching “right” conception of nationalism.

How then did M.N. Roy understand nationalism? In Roy’s view, nationalism was representative of the desires and ambitions of a group of people within a certain geographical area, as opposed to people uniting on the basis of class. Nationalism thus emphasised the placing of one’s country’s interest over the interest of the rest of the world. There was a time in the 19th century, when countries were still isolated from each other, when nationalism was a historic necessity, under whose banner people came together and humanity progressed. However, he believed, it had now become a selfish, narrow-minded “antiquated cult”, and the world should progress towards internationalism and international cooperation. The ambitions of different nations began to conflict with each other, contributing to an exaggerated and irrational form of nationalism, which manifest itself in the rise of Fascism and Nazism, eventually leading to the Second World War. Nationalism, in Roy’s eyes, had thus become a synonym for revivalism, whose advocates were consigned to glorify the past and advocate for a return to the bliss of the middle ages and a simpler life.

Rabindranath Tagore, the composer of the Indian national anthem, had even more radical views on nationalism. He believed that a fervent love for the nation represented a conviction of national superiority and a glorification of cultural heritage, which in turn was used to justify narrow-minded national interest. Writing in 1917, Tagore said, “when this organisation of politics and commerce, whose other name is the Nation, becomes all powerful at the cost of the harmony of higher social life, then it is an evil day for humanity.” He thus cautioned against such an exclusionary and self-aggrandizing form of nationalism that was based on a hate culture against an imagined or actual Other, who was viewed as the enemy.

On the other hand, the revivalists focus on the glory of ancient India, going back to the Aryan race as the building block of the Indian civilisation. This takes the form of cultural nationalism, where anyone celebrating “Western” festivals such as Valentine’s Day or even couples merely holding hands are to be ostracised and attacked. As religious nationalism, it endorses the two-nation theory, which envisages a nation under Hindu rule, a Hindu rashtra in Akhand Bharat (a United India). This is premised on the belief that only a Hindu can claim the territory of British India as a land of their ancestry, i.e. pitribhumi, and the land of their religion, i.e. the punyabhumi.

As Vinayak Damodhar Sarvakar propounded, “Hindu Rashtra (state), Hindu Jati (race) and Hindu Sanskriti (culture).” Muslims and Christians are viewed as foreigners, who are not indigenous to the territory of India, and whose religion originated in a separate holy land.

At this point, I would like to share my personal background. My maternal grandfather was the President of the Hindu Mahasabha in the 1940s, and the first literature that I ever encountered in my school days was Sarvarkar’s writings. Writing in 1938, when Hitler was on the rise, Sarvarkar justified Hitler’s policies towards the Jews and driving them away from the motherland. He said, “A nation is formed by a majority living therein. What did the Jews do in Germany? They being in minority were driven out from Germany.”

I am not sure whether his views changed after World War 2, and when the extent of the holocaust came to be known. Sarvarkar further believed that minority groups must lose their separate existence and separate identity if they want to live in India.

Roy, unsurprisingly, was critical of such views. While discussing the declaration made by the President of the Hindu Maha Sabha that “the majority is the nation”, Roy said that it sounds quite in “tune with formal democracy”, but in reality “ particularly in the prevailing atmosphere of Indian politics, it means that in a nationally free India the Muslims, constituting nearly 1/3rd of the population, will have no freedom”. He was thus against removing an imperialist regime and replacing it with a nationalist regime, which would continue to deny real freedom to most of the Indian people.

It is important to remember that both Tagore and Roy wrote in the context of the First and Second World War respectively. They had thus, witnessed first hand, how the pursuit of the glory of the nation had resulted in the great wars, and betrayed the ideas of liberty, equality, and fraternity of the French Revolution. Today, in independent India unfortunately, having such views is almost blasphemous and perhaps seditious. [. . . ].

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Free Speech, Nationalism and Sedition - Text of lecture by Justice A.P. Shah (retired)
MN Roy lecture was held on 19 April 2017 at Constitution Club, New Delhi
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