Nationalism, democracy and sedition: It’s just not cricket

Democracy leaves room for people at variance with the mainstream, and further, seeks to include, rather than alienate and exclude

It is not enough to say that we should treat those who cheer Pakistan when they play against India as a group of people, we disagree with but live with

How do we deal with people who cheer for Pakistan when India plays a team representing our hostile neighbour? The imprudent cheerers have been rusticated, in the case of some students, or slapped with cases under the stringent anti-terror law, Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, after being thrashed, in some others.

These Muslims belong in Pakistan, what are they doing in India, fume many who are not particularly volunteer members of the Hindutva brigade. Erudite commentators recall British politician Norman Tebbit and his football test of loyalty: when England plays a team from their original lands, he asked, referring to South Asian and Caribbean immigrants, which side do they cheer? The Tory felt that most South Asians failed this test of assimilation and that was proof enough of their separateness, recalcitrance at assimilation and amorphous possibilities of betrayal and worse.

How do we respond to overt signs of national disloyalty on the part of a small minority?

First, let us have clarity on whether those who cheer for Pakistan when they beat India in a game of cricket express national affinity or merely applaud sporting excellence? It is conceivable that there are people with mental conditions that inhibit feelings of bonding with any large group and so are moved, when they watch a game, only by the display of excellence or the lack of it on the playing field. But that is negligible, tiny lot. Most people who cheer a national side display greater affection towards the country they support, if not antipathy towards the other nation.

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So, how do we treat Indians who show loyalty to Pakistan rather than to India? In a tribal society, the solution would be simple, expel them. But we are not a tribal society, we are supposed to be a democracy. We should treat them exactly as we treat people we disagree with, sometimes vehemently, or dislike or have no respect for.

Also read: Agra students arrested for praising Pak win, to face sedition charges

There are people who think India was wrong to have opened up its economy in the 1990s. There are those who believe India should be a Hindu nation, rather than a country in which people of any faith or of no faith enjoy equal rights of citizenship.

There are people who believe that a nation cannot exist without a common, uniform language and that, for India, that language should be Hindi, and all non-native speakers of Hindi should privilege this tongue over their own.

There are those who believe Manu was right, that social mobility is all bunkum, the hewers of wood and drawers of water are born to their toil, that women’s biology is their destiny and they should be content to focus on breeding the next generation.

There are people like Pragya Thakur, honourable BJP Member of Parliament, who venerate Nathuram Godse for having assassinated Gandhi. There are homophobes, xenophobes, misogynists, and other similar groups, whose defining character is best expressed, in polite company, in multisyllabic Greek and Latin.

It is not enough to say that we should treat those who cheer Pakistan when they play against India as a group of people, we disagree with but live with. There are people who do not just go against norms of collective existence, but also violate them in ways that harm others, that is, commit crimes, whom we punish, the severity of the punishment depending on the severity of the offence. Is cheering for Pakistan an offence?

Also read: Md Shami abused after India’s loss to Pakistan, Sehwag, Pathan furious

The Uttar Pradesh government treats it as a potential act of subversion, and have arrested some of those who cheered Pakistan under a law normally reserved for terrorists, the UAPA. This is totally wrong, undemocratic.

Surely, those who show zealous spontaneous ill-feeling towards India are guilty of treason, of sedition?

No, says our Supreme Court, after much sifting of laws, underlying principles, history and debates of the Constituent Assembly, where the framers of the Constitution debated and rejected the notion that sedition is a reasonable restriction on the right to free speech.

Speech that rants and raves against the nation is protected by the right to free speech. That is what sets democracy apart from tribal society. It leaves space for dissent – not just against the government of the day but also against values and principles that enjoy broad agreement as being sacrosanct. Only when that speech is accompanied by the threat of proximate violence does it attract penalty.

Based on this understanding, the Supreme Court acquitted two people charged with sedition after they had shouted Khalistan Zindabad in a public place, on receiving the news that Indira Gandhi, who had ordered an assault on the Golden Temple to smoke out Bhindrenwale’s Khalistani terrorists, had been shot dead by her Sikh body guards.

Most Indians venerated Gandhi as the Mahatma. Yet there were those who distributed sweets on the news of his assassination. There were those who distributed sweets to celebrate Indira Gandhi’s assassination. Obnoxious as their behaviour might strike most normal people, they remain irrefutable parts of India.

In the case of students who come from Kashmir, a place where, during three decades of active militancy by separatists, the conduct of the security forces quelling separatism has often been brutal and oppressive, shielded by the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, cheering Pakistan could well be a way of lodging their protest against such atrocities.

Democracy does not enjoin us to merely tolerate dissent. Its intrinsic logic is to accommodate, so as to eventually include. By beating up those who cheer Pakistan, criminalizing their conduct or simply ostracizing them, the opposite of inclusion is achieved: further alienation and greater hostility.

Spain and Britain have active secessionist movements. A section of Catalonians seek to separate from Spain. The Scottish Nationalist Party seeks to separate from the rest of Britain. Britain and Spain try to foil separatism not by beating loyalty into the heads of Scots and Catalonians, but through political engagement that would make clear the benefits of staying together.

Also read: Pakistan’s win over India only the beginning, not end of the journey

Three decades after Norman Tebbit baited immigrants with his football test, a person of Indian origin is Britain’s finance minister. Another person of Indian origin is Canada’s defence minister. Should India see in these individuals’ sleeper potential ready to be used against the nations they represent, in case they happen to cheer India in sporting engagement?

The violent, unconstitutional responses to a handful of misguided individuals cheering for Pakistan represents the tribal passions that still dominate democratic principle and the rule of law in India. We need greater democracy, and greater inclusion, not more sectarian violence and alienation leading to schism.

(T.K. Arun is a senior journalist based out of New Delhi)

(The Federal seeks to present views and opinions from all sides of the spectrum. The information, ideas or opinions in the articles are of the author and do not reflect the views of The Federal)

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