Why has the state killed Jivan, the protagonist in Megha Majumdar’s much-reviewed, highly praised novel, A Burning? For her alleged ‘crimes against the nation’, ‘sedition’—for simply sharing a Facebook post posted by one of her Facebook friends on Kolabagan Train Attack which killed more than a hundred people—for writing a caption ‘Policemen paid by the government watched and did nothing while this innocent woman lost everything’ (p. 5) in support of a woman in a video clip who screamed that ‘policemen stood around and watched while my husband burned. He tried to open the door and save my daughter (p. 4)’—for writing a comment ‘If the police didn’t help ordinary people like you and me, if the police watched them die, doesn’t that mean, that the government is also a terrorist (p.6)?’[i]
A Facebook post is critical of the government, and one is arrested because of her anti-national activities, her anti-Indian activities. It is a crime against the nation. It is sedition. Anushka Singh, author of Sedition in Liberal Democracies (2018) made a difference between an act of sedition and deshdroh. But that line of difference has already blurred. She said in one of her interviews with the Frontline,
Sedition is an offence against the government, which appears in the IPC as an offence against the state. Deshdroh is an act against the nation, which cannot be equated with the government. Do we want to believe that the government is the nation? The increasing use of sedition in the so-called cases of “anti-national” utterances has contributed to a popular translation of sedition as deshdroh, and clearly, it works to the advantage of the political authorities who use the law. Sedition has an anti-colonial lineage; it was an act of political opposition against unjust and undemocratic authority in India.[ii]
True to her opinion any act that is critical of the government is taken as a seditious act. And in India writers, filmmakers, journalists, activists, and even ordinary Facebook users are under the government’s scanner. Anybody at any hour may be arrested based on an FIR by a Hindutva outfit. Fear is everywhere. Known, unknown fear has gripped us.
It is not easy to speak out against Power. Before one speaks, she will have to choose between jail and amputation or lynching, as veteran journalist Ravish Kumar has warned. The fear of being harassed or trolled is so pervasive that people prefer to refrain from making photographs public on Facebook. Many avoid communicating on WhatsApp so texts cannot be used as evidence.
But Hindutva mobs have no fear of the law. And they are often encouraged by their political gurus to take law into their own hands. They are blessed by the country’s God. The mobs are the moral guardians of Indian society. They are prescribing what to eat and what not, what to wear and what not, what to talk about and what not. They have no respect for the law of the land. Interestingly, the people are not finding any fault with their style of violence. It seems their violent activities in the name of protecting cows or, in the name of saving Hinduism from danger, in the name of teaching Indian Muslims a lesson, the name of showing the Adivasis their roots; get unconditional sanction from the majority of the people. The police are biased. They act as a mute spectator before them. Laws are being manipulated so that they cannot be arrested and punished. And the mobs feel no regrets for lynching a Muslim or an Adivasi. Rather, they feel proud of cleansing bad blood from the body of the mother India.
According to the 2021 Freedom to Write report published by a non-governmental organization Pen America which works to protect freedom of expression across the world, 277 writers and academics were detained or in prison in 36 countries last year. Of them, eight are from India – comedian Munawar Faruqui and Bhima Koregaon accused persons Varavara Rao, Sudha Bharadwaj, Vernon Gonsalves, Hany Babu, Gautam Navlakha, Arun Ferreira and Anand Teltumbde.[iii] Look at another article by Aman Abhishek who claims since assuming power in 2014, Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has been systematically destroying the secular, democratic foundations of India and transforming the country into a strictly Hindu nation. BJP’s Hindu supremacist ideology portrays Muslims as the nefarious “other”. Moreover, Hindu supremacy is about the hegemony of upper-caste Hindus. Lower castes, which constitute the majority of the Indian population, are on one hand told to be proud Hindus, and on the other hand, oppressed violently because the caste system deems them inferior. It is in this context that anti-caste, Dalit (formerly “untouchable”) scholars such as Teltumbde, as well as Muslim and other dissident academics, are accused of being “anti-national” and prosecuted with fabricated charges. [iv]
On Hanuman Jayanti (6th April 2023) a journalist from our town, Chandra Prakash Sarkar was arrested for a Facebook post. The post reproduced a brief history of Hanuman’s birth as written in Krittibas Ojha’s Ramayan. A complaint was launched by several Hindu outfits. And the author was arrested.
Sarkar is one of the leading sane voices of our town, Berhampore. He has written two books—Sampritir Beejtola (Seedbed of Harmony) and Ithihase Sompriti (Harmony in History). He is the editorial member of a leading little magazine of the town, the Jhor. A retired government employee, who has been working for peace and communal harmony throughout his life, has been harassed and threatened with dire consequences. He is keeping away from Facebook. He is being tracked online and offline.
And those who have made complaints against the author know well that if his fearless voice can be muffled, many of his followers will feel the heat. And they too will take the path of silence or self-censorship. It is a well-calibrated move to silence the reasoned voice and to make the place what Chandan Pandey in his ant-lynching novel Legal Fiction (2021) says ‘garbage town’—where only cactuses grow, no birds sing, no lambs bleat.
Abu Siddik teaches at Plassey College, West Bengal, India. He is a bilingual author and has been published in India and abroad. He has three critical books— Representation of the Marginalized in Indian Writings in English (Falakata College Cell, 2015), Misfit Parents in Faulkner’s Select Texts (Authorspress, 2015), Banglar Musolman (Sopan, 2018); two poetry books and a short story, published by Authorspress in 2020 —Rugged Terrain, Whispering Echoes, A Birdwatcher and Other Stories. Website: www.abusiddik.com
[i] Majumdar, Megha. A Burning. Gurgaon: Penguin, 2020.
[ii] Venkatesan, V. et al. “Demystifying sedition: Interview with Anushka Singh, sedition law expert.” The Hindu, 30 Jan. 2019, available at: https://frontline.thehindu.com/cover-story/article26119560.ece
[iv] Aman Abhishek, “Academic freedom is under attack in Modi’s India” Available at
https://www.aljazeera.com/opinions/2020/12/18/academic-freedom-is-under-attack-in-modis-india Accessed June 28, 2022.