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.

Where is the homework?

It has been a long time since I blogged on this site. Little over four months. Not that I did not have issues. Somehow, events happening in the world of economics and financial markets had become more gripping – China’s stock market tumble, the government’s reaction, rescue and edicts, etc. Then, came summer holidays and teaching commitments, etc.

India continued to and continues to confound in the meantime. After this long article (cover-story) in Swarajya, I did one more piece for them in August on PM Modi gone weak and missing. Whether he had gone weak or missing was a legitimate question to ask, given that the Government appeared to have decidedly lost momentum after completing its one year. But, more often than not, one could not avoid forming the impression that PM Modi and his government were being subjected to unprecedented critical scrutiny with objectivity, more often than not, being a casualty.

About two weeks ago, there was an article in FT by David Pilling about how India had nothing to feel pleased about China’s economic travails. Fair enough. But, the tone was disdainful and even insulting. I posted a comment on the article and blogged on it here.

Another instance: I was also critical of the government (read Income-Tax department) sending notices on Minimum Alternate Tax (MAT) to all Foreign Institutional Investors based on the ruling of an ‘Authority on Advanced Rulings’. It sent many tweeting, blogging (including by Yours truly) on the silly self-goal that I.T department had scored for the Government when the Prime Minister was courting foreign businesses to come and invest in India.

The government appointed the Justice A.P. Shah Committee to go into the matter. The Committee recommended that the government withdraw the notices. Now, not only the notices for payment of MAT on FII are to be withdrawn but all foreign businesses which have no Permanent Establishment in India and/or which are residing in countries that have a Double-Taxation Avoidance Agreement with India. This is a good move. The government had not only settled the original dispute that arose out of the policy self-goal but had also used the opportunity to clear the air, even further. In that sense, the delay of six months to clear the air might have been worth it.

It remains to be seen if some of those who tweeted with gusto on the original government action would acknowledge that the government had turned a ‘crisis’ into an opportunity, eventually.

Take the outrage over the ban on eating meat on the days of Jain festival. First, the legal provision for the ban had been in place for nearly two decades in Maharashtra as in other States. The ban may or may not have been invoked by previous State governments with enthusiasm in the past. The simple fact here is that the present Maharashtra government did not enact the ban. Yes, indeed, it is a legitimate question to ask whether the Maharashtra government could not have overturned or withdrawn those bans. It could leave these matters to communities to sort out. Indeed, that is a good question to ask. It will also be consistent with the idea of the State not being present in social affairs where it does not have to be.

But, those who ask the question must first acknowledge facts as they are. Otherwise, their objectivity is liable to be legitimately suspected.

It was left to Ms. Madhu Kishwar to question the bias in the questioning of the ban on sale of meat. If killing animals to eat them was not to be banned by the State, where were the critics when the State banned the use of animals by tribes that made a living with such animal shows? Some of these tribes had lost their livelihoods. No outrage. Some of the people who take to Twitter reflexively to display their liberal credentials may not have even done some digging up to understand the full background and history of such bans. Had they done so, they might have stood a chance of knowing about these earlier bans and been able to place their criticism – which is not wrong – in perspective.

The Prime Minister of India is in the United States this weekend. Two to three weeks ago, many academics in the United States petitioned Silicon Valley executives to boycott his visit. This petition appears on the website of THE HINDU (what a surprise!). They had listed what they saw as abridgement of freedom of expression by the Modi government. Below is one sample sentence from their petition:

there has been interference with the governance of top Indian universities and academic institutions such as the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, the Indian Institutes of Technology and Nalanda University; as well as underqualified or incompetent key appointments made to the Indian Council of Historical Research, the Film and Television Institute of India, and the National Book Trust.

This is where it gets really interesting and they lose all their credibility. Nalanda University has been a prime-exhibit of incompetence and cronyism. The person who serves as the Vice-Chancellor (still? – where is the NDA government?) was not appointed after a due process. There was no outrage then and there is no outrage now, on that while so much digital bandwidth has been wasted on the appointment of Gajendra Chauhan as the Head of the Film and Technology Institute of India (FTII) in Pune. Again, the government could have done better.

If it was to achieve a Congress-mukt Bharath, there was no need to continue with the tradition of the Government running FTII. There was no need for the government to finance or subsidise the provision of actors and technicians to the Film Industry. The industry could and should take care of it. They have ample funds and self-interest to do so. That is a legitimate criticism.

But, again, for critics, the message is clear. Between FTII and Nalanda University, there is no equivalence. The latter is far more important and prestigious. Yet, it has been mismanaged and exploited on more than one count. Where was and is the outrage? Madhu Kishwar’s article in ‘Firstpost’ is a good expose on this blatant inconsistency and/or hypocrisy on the part of critics.

She has a good message for the critics of the Prime Minister and his government:

Those who wish their criticism to be taken seriously have to earn the right by being visibly non-partisan. This includes having the courage to acknowledge the positive aspects and good deeds of the person targeted for scrutiny. There are as many serious lapses being committed by Modi government as there are attempts to improve things. But the petitioners’ blind prejudice is not tempered by reason or a reality check. Therefore, they are only damaging their own credentials and taking attention away from important issues.

Dr. Rajendra Pachauri, head of TERI, was accused of sexual harassment last year. Only in July this year, did the Governing Board of TERI announced that he would be replaced. This DNA report says that the Governing Board did not say that he was removed or sacked for misconduct. It made the announcement appear like a routine leadership change.

Again, the purpose behind pointing this out is to remind the critics that I had not seen much of an outrage at this impropriety. When so much hullabaloo is being made about the importance of institutions, how about holding TERI and Mr. Pachauri to the same standard?

Most of the outrage in the Social Media against the government is by those who take their news from the English-language media in India which, for the most part, has been and continues to be selective and biased in its reporting. The media did not report much on what was going on in Nalanda University. Most of it came out only after the UPA government was voted out of power last year.

So, critics run a real risk. They can be seen as being less than objective and more biased if their source is biased, selective, partial and incomplete, to start with. They need to be mindful of this risk. The onus is on them to do more thorough homework to understand history, background, etc., before they put fingers to the keyboard or keypad on their phones.

Apparently, celebrated author Amish Tripathi spoke this in a Salon hosted by ‘Firstpost’:

India has lost confidence and is trying to rediscover it. Manthan is happening and some negativity is also emerging.

He is right. Critics need to be careful about not being led, unconsciously, by the headline news of the day. They need to place their outrage in the historical context. For that, they need to make the effort to know the history of the issues they are commenting on.