The Conviction of Protest: Sedition and the Farmers Protest

Climate activist Disha Ravi’s statement, ‘If highlighting farmers’ protest globally is sedition, I’m better in jail’, courageously challenges the way her actions have been criminalised by the Delhi police acting on behalf of the Indian state. Without questioning the necessity and power of these words, we should nevertheless notice that they depend on a certain logic that even opponents of such police actions often inadvertently replicate. While Ravi’s words are, of course, meant to convince us that acts such as hers, undertaken with a view to the public good and the future of human life on earth, should not be categorised as seditious, they also perhaps imply that other acts, entirely unlike hers, may in fact be considered properly seditious.

But as many lawyers and legal scholars have pointed out, the very idea of sedition appears today in our politico-legal space as an anomaly. Sedition forbids the incitement of hatred, contempt or disaffection towards a legally established government. It first became a crime in sixteenth-century England, where the king assumed, in his own person, the sovereignty of the state. Both sedition, the charge of publicly expressing disagreement with or hatred for the king, and its twin, loyalty or love for the state, belong to a political space predicated on the king’s exclusive embodiment of sovereignty and hence on the violent suppression of disagreement. But how could one conceive of sedition as a crime in a democracy?

Let us recall on what grounds the Indian National Congress passed its historic ‘purna swaraj’ (complete independence) declaration on 19 December 1929 at the Lahore session of the Congress: ‘We believe it is the inalienable right of the Indian people, as of any other people, to have freedom and to enjoy the fruits of their toil and to have the necessities of life, so that they may have full opportunities of growth. We also believe that if any government deprives a people of these rights and oppresses them, the people have a further right to alter it or to abolish it’ (emphasis added). While of course the writers of the document did not advocate the violent overthrow of the government, they seem to have envisioned as perfectly legitimate the voicing of dissent and disaffection in order to alter the government. The entire resolution is premised on the ‘inalienable right’ to freedom and, explicitly, to freedom of expression, especially when such expression concerns policies of the government. The resolution recognises, moreover, in perhaps the most interesting phrase of the entire document, the right of ALL peoples to such freedom: ‘it is the inalienable right of the Indian people, as of any other people…’.Now,any other people’ could mean not only people who already exist as part of already determined nations but also people who are yet to come—people who do not exist as yet but may, at some point, come to exist as ‘a people’. All such people may claim, says the declaration, an ‘inalienable’ right to freedom.

Needless to say, such freedom was never imagined as limitless or unbounded. But sedition, conceived as the act of expressing disaffection or contempt for the government, names so evidently one of the chief ways of enacting a people’s claim to self-determination and self-government that surely it is sheer bad faith to declare it a crime. Its criminality, however, should not be seen only as the consequence of bad faith. It is, rather, the consequence of that formidably brazen manoeuvre by which the yearning for freedom and self-determination, once consecrated by the anticolonial struggle, is now deftly outwitted and punished by the postcolonial state. Barely had the first glimmer of that long-sought-after democracy appeared than democracy itself reverted, as though by magic, to the old habits of monarchy.

That does not mean, however, that the postcolonial state has not also learnt to exploit and profit from the machinery of democracy. Recognising that the space of the nation is more likely to be constituted not by commonality but by antagonism, it has now succeeded in instituting the most powerful of all antagonisms: the split between the punishers and the punished. The criminalisation not only of Disha Ravi, Nodeep Kaur and Shiv Kumar but also of the protesting farmers themselves—and, before them, many who have protested against the policies of the government, most notably the new citizenship laws it has sought to implement—shows us very clearly that democracy’s imagined conflict of ideologies or parties has now been decisively supplanted by this other, stronger and most profitable division between the punishers and the punished. The farmers’ insistence that a deregulated market is not in their interest is read as a manifestation of, first, their ignorance and, second, their enmity: they are separatists, they are aligned withenemies of the state, with terrorists, and so on. This is the choice the current regime offers its subjects, every day, not in covert but in overt ways. One can punish with impunity by aligning oneself with ‘nationalist’ and patriarchal vigilante groups or one can join the beleaguered ranks of the punished—those firmly characterised as the internal enemy for the crime of articulating opposition. 

The miracle is that the protest continues. It continues, and against the kingly symbols of the punishers—now the epic warrior Rama, now the early modern warrior Shivaji—it pits its own symbols: a Bhagat Singh, an Ambedkar, a Pash and a Faiz, turning again and again to the ephemeral poetry of revolution. The miracle is that the farmers of the world do unite, even if they do so fleetingly and even if these coalitions do not hold. The miracle is that, driven by a certain love for dignity and justice, there are still those—not only thousands of farmers across the country, but also young activists like Nodeep Kaur, Shiv Kumar, and Disha Ravi–who willingly join the ranks of the punished.

(NB. Disha Ravi and Nodeep Kaur have now been released on bail, but Shiv Kumar continues to be imprisoned at the time of writing this article.)

Note: This piece comes to Arena Online via the Institute of Postcolonial Studies.

Indian Farmers Resist Neoliberalism

Vikas Rawal, 4 Mar 2021

It is noteworthy that, while farmers have built solidarity across states, between different classes of rural society, and between different castes and communities, the ruling party and its machinery have been working overtime to create divisions between organisations and communities, and accusing the movement of infiltration by separatists and terrorists.

About the author

Simona Sawhney

Simona Sawhney lives in New Delhi.

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