Better to ignore

Some statements made by Hurriyat leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani and writer and activist Arundhati Roy at a seminar on Kashmir in Delhi last week have become controversial and invited demands for their prosecution under the country’s sedition laws. The views expressed by the two – one a known separatist and the other a freak campaigner for many causes – are certainly against the positions of the Indian government and are not shared by most of the people in the country.

But that is no reason for invoking Section 124(A) of the IPC that penalises actions or words that cause disaffection, hatred and contempt of government. It is also a stretch to interpret them as a call to violence. Geelani’s views are not new. The difference is that he articulated them again in Delhi. 

Arundhati Roy’s questioning of the union of Kashmir with India would seem to many as more inappropriate, especially because she is not from Kashmir. She also made similar statements in public meetings in Kashmir. She has since clarified that hers was a call for justice and not for break-up of the country. Even chief minister Omar Obdullah recently stated in the Kashmir assembly that Kashmir’s union with India was not absolute. Rajaji, India’s first governor-general, had held till the time of his death that Kashmir should be given the right to self-determination.

All these should be tested against the commitment of the nation to ensure free speech to its citizens. That freedom is not the right to say only palatable and convenient things, but the entitlement to say inappropriate and wrong things too. As long as they do not cause substantive damage to national interests or disrupt public order they cannot be considered actionable under any restrictive law, including those relating to sedition. Some words and actions of leaders of fringe groups like the Shiv Sena are in fact a greater threat to the country’s integrity and constitutional order.

Attempts to suppress dissident views through official action will draw more attention to those who propound them and even make them victims and martyrs. Our democracy has matured through tolerance of many fissiparous views. The case is stronger to ignore certain provocations than to come down with a hammer on them. The Indian state is strong enough to withstand disruptive threats, and the first principles of freedom are more important for the stability of the state and the endurance of nationhood.

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