Justice A.P. Shah’s M.N. Roy Memorial Lecture

A good friend had forwarded me the full text of Shri. A.P. Shah’s M.N. Roy Memorial Lecture. You can find it here. The PDF of the speech is here.

Overall, it is a good lecture. I understand the need for someone of his stature to raise his voice against nascent signs of intolerance and suppression of dissent in insidious ways. That is very much needed too.

However,  I do have some differences – big and small.

How then did M.N. Roy understand nationalism? In Roy’s view, nationalism was representative of the desires and ambitions of a group of people within a certain geographical area, as opposed to people uniting on the basis of class. Nationalism thus emphasised the placing of one’s country’s interest over the interest of the rest of the world. There was a time in the 19th century, when countries were still isolated from each other, when nationalism was a historic necessity, under whose banner people came together and humanity progressed. However, he believed, it had now become a selfish, narrow-minded “antiquated cult”, and the world should progress towards internationalism and international cooperation.

Nationalism in the context of the rise of China and Pakistan, the manner of their rise, their systematic and persistent hostility to India combined with their use of the social media and other pecuniary motivations, is not outmoded. Unfortunately, that is also going to give rise to inevitable restrictions on the concept of ‘benefit of doubt’ to spontaneous, agenda-less dissent.

In other words, Indians have to accept certain (that can be defined) restrictions in their exercise of fundamental liberties. The State machinery will try to take advantage of the situation to place restrictions on domestic political dissent. But, Courts, civil society and the media should and would play the role of ‘checks and balance’. In any case, Justice A.P. Shah seems alive to that risk.

While discussing the declaration made by the President of the Hindu Maha Sabha that “the majority is the nation”, Roy said that it sounds quite in “tune with formal democracy”, but in reality “particularly in the prevailing atmosphere of Indian politics, it means that in a nationally free India the Muslims, constituting nearly 1/3rd of the population, will have no freedom”.

​If some sections constituted one-third and hence had to be accepted as an integral part of India – a very fair point – then it is not consistent with preferential treatment as minorities. The State cannot mandate that they shall have the first claim on India and that they be exempt from RTE provisions, for example. One cannot have the cake and eat it too.

But, the speech does leave a feeling of deliberate incompleteness when it talks of how a group of twenty-something students of a University could be tried for charges of sedition for doing what the students in a campus would do:

More than 90 years later, however, we are still grappling with the fact that the crime of sedition was invoked against a group of 20-something University students for doing what students in a campus should feel entitled to do – raise slogans, debate, disagree, and challenge each other on complex, political issues that face the nation today.

Clearly, the State should have had the nous to separate slogan-shouting from explicit anti-national activities. At the same time, the learned Justice should have noted that the shoe is on the other foot too when it comes to the charge of intolerance. The students prevented and still do prevent alternate points of view.

If nationalism cannot be compelled – and I agree with that without qualification – then is it justifiable that anti-nationalism can be compelled on national soil as some sections of the society want?

If voluntary groups of people – like students – can resort to violence (in America, now left-liberal students even consider words as violence) to stop alternative points of view, then it becomes that much more untenable for critics to blame the State alone for resorting to violence on which it is supposed to have a monopoly!

The speech would have been more complete had he also acknowledged the special circumstances that India finds itself in – an assertive and threatening China and its poodle Pakistan, the global rise of Islamic terrorism, Naxals and Maoists and the exploitation of these fissiparous tendencies by Christian Missionaries – that places the State and the army in a uniquely difficult position, etc.

Some law and order excesses would be inevitable in such situations and they should be redressed and addressed. That said, they do not negate nor nullify the need for vigilance by the State. That would be a very naive call.

Kamal Hassan in his movie, ‘Nayakan’ asks the question of who should stop first. That applies here.

M.N. Roy’s so-called and apparent context-free commitment to certain ideals definitely had a context. Anyone who claims that they were not influenced by the context in which they lived is lying. Similarly, any message that does not take into account the context in delivering eternal homilies is an incomplete one.

Indeed, all those who speak pejoratively of nationalism are able to do so only within the sanctuary offered by certain nations. That they cannot do so in all nations is a comprehensive rejection of their rejection of nationalism.

Finally, both at a micro-level – families, small groups and communities – and at the national level, compulsion is usually counter-productive. So, I agree with this part of the speech fully:

As Pratap Bhanu Mehta points out, the order fails to understand a distinction fundamental to liberal democracy – everything that is desirable or makes for a better citizen does not, and should not, be made compulsory. In fact, making something compulsory undermines the very meaning of that action and the respect that is normally accorded to it.

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