– ‘Pakistan Zindabad’ slogan at anti-CAA rally was ill-conceived, but it is not sedition

The decision to yell a contentious slogan at a public rally may be worth criticising, but it is not grounds for a sedition charge.

Sruthisagar Yamunan

Bengaluru – Karnataka – India, 21 February 2020. Eighteen-year-old Amulya Leona was charged with sedition on Thursday after she shouted “Pakistan Zindabad” at an anti-Citizenship Amendment Act rally organised by the All India Majlis e Ittehad ul Muslimeen in Bengaluru.

A video of the event at which Leona is seen shouting the slogan has gone viral. In the clip, AIMIM leader Asaduddin Owaisi can be seen looking alarmed the moment he hears the slogan and promptly asks the woman to stop the chants. Owaisi later criticised her for misusing the party forum.

Despite this, Owaisi has come under fire from the Hindutva critics on social media, as they questioned his patriotism yet again. In addition, Leona’s father in Chikkamagaluru in Karnataka was made to disown his daughter’s comments on camera and was heckled by a group men to chant “Bharat Mata ki Jai”.

A Facebook post by Leona on February 16 that came to attention after the incident seems to show that the teenager did not intend to single out Pakistan for praise so much as to make the point that humanity should be placed above the territorial idea of a nation state.

A translation of the original Kannada message seemed to indicate what Leona was about to say before she was asked to stop her speech at the meeting.

“Hindustan zindabad, Pakistan zindabad, Bangladesh zindabad, Sri Lanka zindabad, Nepal zindabad, China zindabad, Afghanistan zindabad, Bhutan zindabad,” Leona had written. “Whichever country it may be, zindabad to all countries.”

She added, “Children are taught that country means territory. But, we, the children, want to tell you, a country is its people. Every person is entitled to basic amenities. All the people should have citizenship rights. The governments of all countries should look after its people in a good manner. Zindabad to everyone who works in the service of people.”

Despite the criticism of Leona’s action, it is clear is that the police’s decision to invoke the sedition law is disproportionate.

Labelling Muslims

Owaisi’s response to the slogan was clearly the right thing to do, given the atmosphere that has been created across India ever since protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act broke out in December. The new law introduces a religious criterion for awarding citizenship, providing illegal immigrants from three countries a fast track to Indian citizenship, except if they are Muslim.

Hindutva groups, including the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and its ministers, have repeatedly attempted to portray Muslims agitating against the law as “anti-nationals”.

In such a situation, for someone to chant slogans in support of Pakistan at a meeting organised by a Muslim party is irresponsible and ill-conceived. Such an action plays into the hands of Hindutva groups, which are now trying to justify their bigoted opinion that all Indian Muslims harbour sympathies for Pakistan.

There is, of course, little evidence for this at the protests across India, which foreground in speeches and artwork the Preamble of the Constitution that guarantees equality, justice and fraternity.

As many such as Left activist Kavita Krishnan have pointed out, Leona’s intention was never to celebrate Pakistan. It seems the legitimate anxiety that the chant created at the event led to the unfortunate consequence of her being stopped from completing her statement. As a result, she is heard shouting “Pakistan Zindabad” three times before the microphone was taken away from her.

While it could be argued that she was simply trying to get the attention of the crowd, the consequences that the chant would have created for the protests is dire. Owaisi’s decision to stop her cannot be faulted.

What can be faulted is the manner in which the state has responded to events. The police immediately filed a case of sedition against Leona and the magistrate has sent her to judicial custody for 14 days.

Khalistan, Pakistan and sedition

Can chanting “Pakistan zindabad” without an intention to bring about disaffection against the government be deemed seditious? Clearly not. In fact, the Supreme Court has condoned similar statements made in even more drastic circumstances and has criticised police officials who had failed to apply their mind in moving prosecutions for sedition.

In 1995, the case of two Punjab state officials booked for sedition came up in appeal before the Supreme Court. Balwant Singh and Bhupinder Singh were tried for sedition after they shouted “Khalistan Zindabad” and “Hindustan Murdabad” in Chandigarh hours after former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh guards on 31 October 1984.

The Khalistani movement was a separatist movement that Indira Gandhi put down with force. Its aim was to create a separate nation for Sikhs. In June 1984, security forces stormed the Golden Temple in Amritsar to flush out Khalistani militants and their leader Jairnail Singh Bhindranwale. Any support to the Khalistanis at that point was deemed anti-national.

The two were convicted by the lower court. But the Supreme Court threw the cases out and observed:

“Keeping in view the prosecution evidence that the slogans as noticed above were raised a couple of times only by the appellant and that neither the slogans evoked a response from any other person of the Sikh community or reaction from people of other communities, we find it difficult to hold that upon the raising of such casual slogans, a couple of times without any other act whatsoever the charge of sedition can be founded.”

The court added that it did not appear that the police “should have attached much significance to the casual slogans” raised by two a couple of times and “read too much into them”.

Leona’s case is similar. Even if for a moment it is assumed that her intention was only to chant “Pakistan zindabad” and nothing else, it was merely a statement.

While it could be deemed irresponsible given the political atmosphere, the fact that there was no serious response from others to this slogan makes it unfit to attract the sedition provision under Section 124 A of the Indian Penal Code.

In fact, the reaction was the exact opposite: the organisers immediately took the microphone away from the woman and condemned her statements. Thus, no feelings against the government were excited by the statements, a requirement to fulfill charges under the law.

Given the Supreme Court precedent, it is unfortunate that the magistrate acted in a mechanical manner and did not apply his mind before sending Leona to judicial custody. Legitimising unfounded sedition charges acts as a catalyst in perpetuating opinions that certain sections and communities are “anti-national”.

This is not the first time the sedition law is being invoked for merely making statements in the context of the Citizenship Amendment Act protests. Earlier this month, the Karnataka police booked a parent and a teacher in a school at Bidar for a school play about the citizenship law.

The student production is alleged to have contained statements that criticised Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The students, the youngest of whom was nine years old, were harassed five times under the garb of questioning them.

The sedition law was also invoked against Sharjeel Imam, a Jawaharlal Nehru University student who asked for a blockade of Assam. In this case too, there was no reaction on the ground and the statements were disowned immediately by others.

Earlier this month, the Mumbai Police filed a sedition case against 51 persons for allegedly chanting slogans in support of Imam at a queer pride event. – Ayodhya Verdict – What explains the silence among Muslim communities on the Ayodhya judgment?

Ipsita Chakravarty

Ayodhya – UP – India, 15 November 2019. “People had already decided that we will accept whatever decision the court makes. This is about respecting the court,” said the 45-year-old businessman in Varanasi. He was referring to the city’s Muslim community.

The court decision that had been accepted calmly was the ruling on the Ayodhya land title dispute, which paves the way for a Ram temple on the site where the Babri Masjid had been demolished. The Supreme Court had also ordered the allocation of five acres of land for a mosque in Ayodhya.

“It does not mean that we are happy with it,” the businessman said. It had been a property dispute but the court seemed to have no evidential basis for its judgment, and was there no other land to build a temple?

A young Muslim journalist based in Varanasi was more blunt. “We had expected that there would be a decision, not justice,” she said. “But we had not expected the judgment to go so much against us.”

There was no proof of a Ram mandir ever having existed on the site, she pointed out, and the Supreme Court had admitted that a mosque built by Babur had stood there. “The Supreme Court gave such a baffling judgment,” she said.

But if there is bitterness, both businessman and journalist also speak of keeping the peace, of not wanting “more damage to the country”.

The businessman preferred to dwell on how people from all faiths had been invited to a chhat puja on the ghats of Varanasi, how Eid-Milad-un-Nabi processions had passed off peacefully a day after the verdict.

An unquiet silence

With the November 9 judgment, the Supreme Court decided on an matter that has riven the political life of India post Independence. What began as a sullen legal dispute in 1949, when idols were smuggled into the inner sanctum of the mosque, became a communal flashpoint after 1992, when a Hindutva mob demolished the mosque.

Since then, the dispute has triggered riots that killed thousands, cut through the social fabric of villages across North India and poisoned political speeches, especially those of the Hindu Right. For close to three decades, Ayodhya has been a byword for polarisation in Indian politics.

The final judgment, decades in the making, has been read by many as serving majoritarian interests. Yet there have been few protests from the minority, whose claims to the site have been dismissed.

All India Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul-Muslimeen chief Asaduddin Owaisi rejected the offer of alternative land for a mosque, and has found growing support on social media. A few voices have urged a review petition.

But, on the whole, Muslim political and socio-religious leaders said the verdict in favour of a Ram temple had to be accepted. Even in North India, where Ayodhya resonates the most, Muslim communities took in the judgment with stoic calm.

Going by reports, Muslims in Ayodhya expressed sorrow and helplessness. In Old Delhi, Muslim shopkeepers were more worried about businesses that had struggled after demonetisation and a shrinking job market.

After years of contestation, what explains this lack of protest? There are no easy answers. But social scientists point to the place of the Babri Masjid in the Muslim faith, how the dispute figured in Muslim identity politics, the absence of a monolithic Muslim identity in India, as well as a growing majoritarian consensus.

Not a special mosque

“Babri was a mosque for us but not a special mosque,” said the businessman from Varanasi. “It is not like Muslims from all over the country came to pray there. For us, the important places are Mecca and Medina.”

The Babri dispute has always been a mix of the sacred and secular. For a section of Hindus, the site was the birthplace of Ram. For Muslims, it was consecrated ground. But it was not central to the faith, many argue.

“Babri wasn’t even a grand mosque like Jamia Masjid,” said Saeed Naqvi, journalist and author of Being the Other: The Muslim in India. “If you say Ramchander ji was born here and I say Prophet Muhammad was born here then we have a contest.”

Over the years, the Mughal-era mosque had paled in religious significance for Muslims. Even if the plot had been allotted to Muslims, the journalist from Varanasi explained, they would not have been able to pray there, the tenets of Islam said prayers could not be offered on disputed land.

Political scientist Hilal Ahmed even contends that Babri had become an “irrelevant mosque” for Muslims, especially after 1992. “The mosque or at least the structure of it, was demolished in 1992, hence, there is no mosque at all there on the disputed land,” he explained.

“On the other hand, there is a functional Hindu temple, which is open to all Hindus.

A Hindu can visit this temple, offer bhog to the deity and commemorate lord Ram’s birthplace on the site where Babri Masjid once stood. However, this is not the case with Muslims. A Muslim is not allowed to offer prayers on this land.

This legal restriction discourages the Muslims from asserting their religious claim on this site for regular namaz etc, as the Babri Masjid does not have any special religious status for Muslim communities.”

A secular debate

Rather, Muslim claims to the site have been rooted in questions of historicity and legality.

In his book, Muslim Political Discourse in Postcolonial India: Monuments, Memory, Contestation, Ahmed writes that the dominant Muslim position on the dispute hewed close to the “secular, objective” position: that there was little evidence to support the presence of a Ram temple on the site, the monument was a part of India’s national heritage, the dispute was not just a local issue but spoke to the rights of religious minorities in India.

Local Muslim narratives, Ahmed argues, connected legal and historical facts with myths and folklore.

The deserted hilltop in Ayodhya had been a site for Sufi worship, according to local folklore. The prayers of Sufi mystics had helped Babur win the Battle of Panipat against Sikander Lodhi, and so the victorious Mughal ordered the construction of a mosque on the spot.

Local histories also note the presence of Hindu bairagis who forced their way in and built a platform in the outer courtyard of the mosque but continued to worship there at the indulgence of the nawab of Awadh. The Hindu-Muslim unity of Awadh was only disrupted by the British, who created the dispute, according to the local narrative.

At least some of these ideas still endure in the former kingdom of Awadh. For centuries, Hindus and Muslims had lived together and fought together, said the businessman from Varanasi. “It was the British who created these divisions to get power,” he explained.

Both dominant and local Muslim positions sought negotiations in the domain of law. It was only briefly, in the 1980s, that these legal contestations entered the political domain, Ahmed argues.

The political Babri

The 1980s saw Muslim political responses shaped by an increasingly animated Hindu Right. In 1984, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad started an active campaign for the Ram temple and in 1986, the Faizabad district court allowed the mosque to be unlocked after decades.

With that, Babri entered a wider current of Muslim identity politics, Ahmed argues, becoming the symbol of a “collective Muslim resistance”.

The Babri Masjid Action Committee was formed soon after the gates were unlocked, Muslim parties such as the AIMIM as well as Muslim political and religious leaders joined in political mobilisations, mostly in North Indian cities.

It was a decade marked by other battles of identity, the Shah Bano case, which triggered a debate over Muslim personal law, and the Satanic Verses, the Salman Rushdie novel which incurred a fatwa.

The Babri case was folded into the demand for a law to protect the right to worship in other mosques. But the Muslim agitations could not prevent the performance of the shilanya, or stone laying, for a Ram temple in 1989. That same year, Ram Lalla Virajaman, the deity itself, represented by a “sakha” or “friend”, became a party to the title suit.

It proved to be an inflection point for Muslim identity politics around Babri. “The common Muslims, who were mobilised in the name of protecting the mosque, were always told that Babri Masjid was a political failure for them,” said Ahmed.

There was a victory of sorts in 1991, when the Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act was passed, ensuring that the religious character of places of worship would be maintained as it existed on August 15, 1947. But while it boosted the legal proceedings, political mobilisations receded, especially after the demolition.

“All Muslim parties and groups decided to recognise the AIMPLB’s [All India Muslim Personal Law Board’s] High Power Committee as the core body to look after the legal case on Babri Masjid after its demolition,” said Ahmed. “The Babri Masjid Action Committee passed a resolution on December 1, 1993, to suspend all the agitational programmes and activities.”

Which Muslim politics?

In the decades after the demolition, the Ram Mandir became a core issue for the Bharatiya Janata Party and its Hindu nationalist project, which involved the attempt to construct a homogenising Hindutva politics.

It helped propel the party from two seats in 1984 to over 300 seats in 2019, Naqvi observes. But after the mobilisations of the 1980s, no such consolidated identity politics was visible among Muslim communities across the country.

Naqvi, for one, is indignant when asked about a “Muslim response” to the Babri dispute. Muslims in India were a diverse group, ranging across states, speaking different languages, with varying political impulses and responses.

Most Indian Muslims wanted social harmony, he said, it was a section of the religious and political leadership which kept Babri alive to stay relevant.

Besides, social scientists and writers point out, Muslim communities wanted to be identified as political subjects outside “Muslim issues”. But they had been boxed in, by socio-religious and political leaders from within the community and by the wider sweep of politics, even apparently secular politics.

“Muslims wanted jobs, security, entrepreneurial help. But what has the system imposed on them? Babri, Shah Bano, Satanic Verses,” said Naqvi.

Living in a majoritarian state

Beneath the quiet after the Ayodhya judgment, there is also a dry-eyed recognition of political realities. Even if the court had awarded the land to the Muslim parties, Naqvi says, they would never have been able to build a mosque their in the current climate of majoritarian bullying.

Some of the silence is dictated by fear. The journalist in Varanasi spoke of FIRs against Muslims in Uttar Pradesh who had criticised majoritarian policies or politics on social media. The businessman did not want to be named, “you know what the political situation is”.

It had created silences in personal relationships. “Even with Hindu friends, we don’t discuss the the mandir-masjid issue. We don’t want to ruin our relationship with them,” said the journalist.

As for protests, there was no space for the political articulations that were possible even a couple of decades ago. “Earlier, there were politicians who would listen to us. Now, no one will listen to us,” said the journalist.

The sense of political marginalisation was sealed with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s speech after the Ayodhya verdict. “He congratulated Hindus for the mandir but did he talk about Muslims even once? What are they getting?” she asked.