My rebuttal to the M. N. Roy Memorial lecture by CJ AP Shah

The debate on nationalism and anti-nationalism has again arisen, at least among intellectual circles, after the M. N. Roy Memorial lecture by former Delhi Chief Justice AP Shah. The script of the lecture is being copiously shared among liberal circles. The points he touched upon were free speech, nationalism and sedition.

He begins his lecture trying to define what is nationalism and what is free speech.

Regrettably, he says, in the new political and cultural atmosphere, having a difference of opinion is quickly termed as anti-nationalism. The freedom of universities is being curtailed. Difference of opinion is being suppressed. The concept of what’s a nation is being woven with the strings of Nazism and Fascism. Grounds for building a great, unified Hindu rashtra are being prepared where minorities like Muslims and Christians are supposed to either live at the margins, or get themselves assimilated into the Hindu religion’s fold.

He equates hyper-nationalism (the sort of nationalism he sees right now in India) with the socio-political conditions prevailing in Germany before Nazism was let loose on the country, especially on the Jews.

He rightly says dissent is very essential for the evolution of the society. Homogeneity kills cultural and political growth. In a democracy, people, especially the political class, should have enough courage to not just face dissent, but also respect it as an integral, as an inseparable part of the democracy.

He compares concepts of nationalism of different historical figures. For instance, what Nehru thought of nationalism was totally different from what Subhash Chandra Bose or Damodar Das Savarkar thought of nationalism (and hence they had their own reasons for supporting and opposing Hitler). European nationalism was different (as colonial countries) from Indian nationalism (as a colonized country aching to get free).

He says that Savarkar’s understanding of nationalism was based on race, lineage, regionalism and culture, whereas M.N. Roy’s nationalism was based on the ambitions and desires of a group of people belonging to a geographic area. The idea of national superiority, he quotes Tagore, begins to justify narrow-minded national interest.

Interestingly, he, or whoever has written the script of the speech, cannot decide whether to use Sarvakar or Sarvarkar, instead of the actual Savarkar. It being such an important lecture, at least the script should have been proofread properly (unless of course, the typos were intentional).

CJ Shah quotes Savarkar saying

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.

to stress the point that Savarkar justified Hitler’s policies towards Jews.

Savarkar, on the other hand, writes this in “Essentials of Hindutva”:

If the Zionists’ dreams are ever realized — if Palestine becomes a Jewish State and it will elate us almost as much as our Jewish friends……

After all there is throughout this world so far as man is concerned but a single race — the human race kept alive by one common blood, the human blood. All other talk is at best provisional, a makeshift and only relatively true. Nature is constantly trying to topple the artificial barriers you raise between races. To try to prevent the commingling of blood is to build forts on sand. Lust has proved more powerful than the commands of all the prophets put together. Even as it is, not even the aborigines of the Andamans are without some pinch of the so-called Aryan blood in their veins and vice versa truly speaking all that any one of us can claim, all that history entitles one to claim, is that one has the blood of all mankind in one’s veins. The central unity of man from pole to pole is true, all else only relatively so.


Like Hitler, if Savarkar believed in the purity of the blood, he wouldn’t have said that even the aborigines living in the Andamans have the Aryan blood running in their veins.

Since a grave allegation is being made (that Savarkar endorsed Hitler’s actions against the Jews) it’s only appropriate that alternative sources are also checked before forming an opinion after reading someone who doesn’t even care enough to spell Savarkar correctly.

If you want to do some more reading on what Savarkar thought of Hitler, do read this nice piece of analysis by Koenraad Elst.

Coming back to the main discussion, the focal points of the lecture is nationalism, freedom of speech and the concept of sedition.

To be frank, the concept of sedition is a colonial concept and even if it cannot be done away with, it should be altered according to the new realities and changed perceptions.

CJ Shah refers to the Constitution to explain what exactly freedom of speech means to our country and how much importance our founding fathers gave to the right of free speech and divergent views. Freedom of speech, CJ Shah rightly says, is not a handout, it is not a favour given to the common citizen by the government. It is a fundamental right specified in our Constitution.

Then what’s the problem. What has changed? Today we live in a world, CJ Shah says, where we are forced to stand for the national anthem at movie theatres. According to him, we cannot eat what we want to eat (maybe he is referring to the recent closure of illegal slaughterhouses in U.P.). Dissent is being curbed in the universities. He talks about how Gurmehar Kaur was trolled on the Internet for posting a video of her telling that it wasn’t Pakistan that killed her father but the bullets, which, if you ask me, is scientifically and biologically correct, but practically and politically, incorrect. But that’s another matter.

He further says that our institutions of learning are under attack, especially today, and there is an attempt to destroy any independent thought. The moment you express an “independent” or a “different” view, you are labelled as “anti-national” or “desh-drohi”.

Before proceeding, since CJ Shah hasn’t mentioned why certain people were called “anti-national” and “desh-drohi”, let us refresh our minds. He is referring to the JNU students who had organised a meet to commemorate the hanging of Afzal Guru, who was convicted for his role in the 2001 Indian Parliament attack. His death sentence was upheld by the Supreme Court, that is, if you care to acknowledge the fact that an institution like the Supreme Court exists in the country.

At this “peaceful” meet where everybody was hell bent upon exercising his and her freedom of speech, the following slogans were raised:

“Bharat tere tukde honge, inshah allah inshah allah”

“Afzal hum sharminda hain, tere qatil zinda hain”

“Kitne Afzal maroge ghar ghar se Afzal niklega”

“Bharat ki barbadi tak jang raheygi”

So these were the noble, freedom-filled slogans that earned these haloed students titles such as “anti-nationals” and “desh drohi”.

Anyway, these slogans are mentioned here just that you know the context, what you make of them is up to you.

Coming back to the lecture…

Why do our prominent citizens and many intellectuals feel that they are unable to express themselves, that freedom of expression is being curbed and intolerance is on the rise? Has the situation actually changed, or many among us are looking at the same, pre-existing problems with a new perspective?

Let’s agree on one thing: We are a very big country. Our law and order situation isn’t as good as it should have been due to persistent misrule and an indelible colonial mentality that made our rulers and bureaucrats think that law and order shouldn’t be for common citizens, it should only be for the powerful. Otherwise, there is no excuse for such a loose law and order system for a country as democratically sound as ours. Assuming our founding fathers were very great, they should have foreseen the importance of an uncompromising justice system and an inviolable law and order machinery.

So yes, heinous crimes happen in our country and culprits go unpunished, sometimes because the police have special instructions from their superiors, or sometimes it is plainly inefficient. It’s a social as well as administrative problem and as mentioned above, it has existed in our country since the birth of the country. It will take a working government many years to get it moving.

About the fabled freedom of speech, dissent and difference of opinion has always been curbed. The Leftist dominated institutions never allowed different views to be brought to the front. Alternative views were never allowed to be published. Institutions like JNU and other universities are bastions of communism and leftism. Up till now they never allowed scholars from other schools of thought into the inner circles of scholarship. Since every new government wants to install its own scholars, so now the BJP government too is making some efforts to change the trend and give some speaking space to alternative voices, a space that was never made available by the governments that people like CJ Shah found more tolerant and inclusive.

In fact, the seeds of intolerance that we see these days were sown on the fields of pre-existing leftist intolerance that had frustrated people to no end but since they had no access to communication and publication platforms, they couldn’t vent out. Now they can.

Baba Ramdev was not allowed to speak at the JNU. Tarekh Fateh was not allowed to deliver a speech in Kolkata. JNU professor Makarand Paranjape posted a video on how he was not allowed to enter his own office and how students heckled him simply because he expresses a different point of view. Just a small comment on the Azaan by Bollywood singer Sonu Nigam attracted sever backlash. A youth has been killed for supporting Sonu Nigam, but people in CJ Shah’s circles will conveniently keep quiet.

Arun Shourie, in multiple books, has presented detailed accounts of how careers of scholars and intellectuals who had a different opinion than the Marxist and leftist scholars and intellectuals in the universities and educational boards, were systematically destroyed.

The rot has existed since 1947. So much inequality and injustice was there that people used to become dacoits (remember all those Chambal movies?). In Pan Singh Tomar (a story based on a real character) they show in even as early 1950 our public institutions were dysfunctional and a law-abiding soldier is forced to pick up the gun. Our intellectuals, and even the judiciary, never questioned sufficiently the successive Congress governments why strong institutions were not being put in place even after so many years.

Then CJ Shah continues with talking of minorities being threatened.

We live in a country where the majority community cannot even celebrate its festivals without offending the Muslim community. The West Bengal government didn’t allow Hindus to celebrate Ram Navmi and they had to approach the High Court that instructed the State government to allow them to celebrate the festival, such is the condition in our country. It’s the strong sense of democracy and tolerance of the majority community that it has relied on the courts to be able to build the Ram Temple in Ayodha despite everyone knowing that the original temple was destroyed and a mosque was built over it. In which country do you see so much tolerance.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is easily the most hounded, the most abused PM the country has ever had, and there hasn’t even been a single instance of retribution from his part. If it is not a tolerant reaction to extreme intolerance, what is it?

The Kashmiri dissidents who abuse India 24 x 7 get security from the Indian government, do you know that? They have properties in India whereas people living in the rest of the country cannot own properties in Kashmir. They get massive amounts of aid from India. And then they talk of intolerance and suppression.

Yogi Adityanath hadn’t yet even spent a single day as the U.P. CM and senior journalists were ruing the fact that they’ll now have to bear a saffron-clad CM. And we are a country where a half-naked “Mahatma” who used to sleep with naked women, is our Father of the Nation. Intolerance? Not at all.

We are fine with having history sheeters, goons and bahubalis as our chief ministers and even prime ministerial aspirants. No, people like CJ Shah have no problem with such individuals.

Without naming the channel CJ Shah talks about Zee News and Times Now (during Arnab days). Zee News showed a video that shows anti-India and pro-Pakistan slogans raised within the JNU campus. Some people started saying that the footage was doctored and no anti-India and pro-Pakistan slogans were raised…the sounds were added by Zee News.

If you do some research on the Internet you’ll discover no link that says Zee News actually doctored the video. Yes, there are allegations, but these allegations are by the usual suspects, sources you cannot trust. In fact, in one YouTube video Zee News journalist Rohit Sardana explains with the help of his studio sound expert, in detail, how they didn’t doctor the video and all the sounds (Pakistan zindabad, etc.) were captured at the site. Allegations were made, nothing was proved, and being an experienced judge, CJ Shah should have refrained from saying “a news channel airs false and doctored footage”. This is how you propagate a lie, or a half-truth — by repeating it at every opportunity. Goebbels, anybody?

Then Times Now. Just as NDTV takes a stand, just like India Today takes a stand, Arnab at Times Now took a stand. What’s odd in this? An Economic Times senior journalist blatantly pitched for Samajwadi Party during the recent Uttar Pradesh elections and CJ Shah sees nothing wrong in that. Prasoon Bajpayee of Aaj Tak was shown conspiring with Kejriwal and CJ Shah has no problem with such media manipulation. CJ Shah does not smell the rot when Rajdeep Sardesai laments the fact that LG Najeeb Jung doesn’t toe the line even when Sonia Gandhi made him the LG (he was taking to Kejriwal). The Raadia tapes controversy doesn’t worry the CJ. No, with all this muck around, he has a problem with Zee News and Times Now for covering an event that should have been covered some other way.

Why can’t someone have an objection to “Bharat tere tukde honge”? How does taking a stand against such sloganeering mean you are fomenting hatred and you are suppressing freedom of speech? “Afzal hum sharminda hain, tere qatil zinda hain” does not, according to CJ Shah, spread hatred, but calling the people who raise such slogans “anti-national” is tantamount to spreading hatred. As Kishore Kumar says in a film, “Wah ri duniya!”

So when the media toes your line it is promoting freedom of expression and freedom of speech and the right sort of nationalism, but when it shows or advocates something you don’t agree with, it is playing into the hands of those who want to suppress freedom of speech and they are promoting the wrong sort of nationalism. Do you see the irony here? Freedom of speech is only good when it suits them.

A journalist was burned alive, yes, burned alive, by a non-BJP government party goons and nobody got alarmed about freedom of expression. Col. Purohit and Sadhvi Pragya were jailed and tortured for years without even a charge sheet and nobody cried for their human rights. People belonging to another ideology are not counted as people.

He talks of movies being censored as if it is a recent phenomenon. Media censoring is unacceptable, but the censor board wasn’t started by the current government (although the current BJP government should have taken initiative and done away with it).

A movie lampooning a Christian priest was severely censored during the UPA rule, but nobody mentioned it even in the passing. Vishwaroopam had to go through more than 60 cuts because it showed Muslim terrorists. Not a whimper.

Of course, no discourse on freedom of speech is complete these days without talking about the ominous social media trolls, especially that appear to come from the BJP’s side — those dreaded Right-wingers and “bhakts”. They are the new national calamity.

“Who are these people?” CJ Shah asks. He must know that such people have always existed in the society. The crassness, the abusive language, the misogyny, the rudeness, they have always been there. In fact, these attributes are there in every society, in every country. What has changed is, the same class, abusive, misogynistic and rude people, now have easy access to Twitter and Facebook and the icing on the cake is, these platforms also allow you to remain anonymous and hence, it’s easier to be your nasty self without revealing your nasty self. So, it’s not a new development. It’s not as if a particular political party has suddenly unleashed these vicious characters on the Internet who are bullying and scaring the righteous and the followers of truth. So the abuse on Twitter and Facebook, I would like to emphasize, coming from all the parties that are active on social media, is not a social media-specific problem. Culturally and socially it has always existed. Strong laws are needed. A clear definition of trolling is needed.

Frankly, I consider myself a liberal and my liberal leanings make me agree with the central message of CJ Shah, if seen in isolation. Yes, the law of sedition is antiquated and it was used by the British and we either need to redefine it or do away with it. Maybe the BJP government wanted to use some sort of law against those JNU lumpens and when it found nothing, it used the existing sedition law tool.

As a liberal society, we must give space to every school of thought even if we don’t like or we don’t agree with that school of thought. After all, the real democracy and real liberalism means accommodating every thought irrespective of whether you agree with that thought or not. But in that sense, Is the class that loves to call itself liberal truly liberal? Do the people who wave the flag of freedom of expression really respect freedom of expression? Does free speech really exist among people who advocate free speech? Sadly, no is the answer. It’s a skewed, dystopian mentality, and that is at the crux of the problem.

Abuse India, abuse the army, abuse our culture, abuse our traditions, abuse our icons, abuse our history, and it’s freedom of speech. Abuse such abusers, and it’s suppression of free speech, it’s hyper nationalism, it’s bordering to Nazism and Fascism.

The points raised by CJ Shah might be ripe for some pondering, they are not the real issues. Our liberal class, our intellectuals, our so-called champions of freedom of expression and freedom of speech, need to do some introspection. Are they really liberal?

I don’t care much about being politically correct. Things are just right or wrong and yes, sometimes there are grey areas in this is why we write, don’t we?