Hoardings have come up in Meerut warning Kashmiris to leave Uttar Pradesh, or else... The posters leave it up to the imagination of their readers as to what will be done to these Kashmiris. Ostensibly, the message is aimed at those pelting stones at the Army in Kashmir, which is a bit daft since those people are in Kashmir, not UP – but since when has logic ever mattered when it comes to good old communal threats?
The Vigilante Idiot
The organisation behind the hoardings is the UP Navnirman Sena, your garden variety gang of thugs wrapped in the cloak of hyper-nationalism. Why they decided to not be explicit about what consequences they intend to visit upon Kashmiris who decide to ignore this bizarre threat is a mystery.
At any rate, the leader of this basket of shy deplorables, Amit Jani, has previously never shied away from making his threats clear and pointed. Deciding that a bullet with a person’s name on it wasn’t hardcore enough, he was behind the discovery of a gun on a bus, along with a letter threatening to kill Kanhaiya Kumar and Umar Khalid for their anti-national comments.
Jani had earlier made threats to kill Kumar if he didn’t apologise for his comments by a specified date, generously not following through with the threat when Kumar obviously didn’t apologise. When the whole gun in bus episode started leading to arrests, he came up with a cunning plot twist that made the whole thing completely legitimate.
Turns out, the actual target was meant to be Asaduddin Owaisi, a sitting member of parliament, who has the temerity to hold some views disagreeable to the general populace.
Lest it be thought that he only targets Muslims, Jani is an equal opportunity intimidator – he has vandalised statues of Mayawati and offices of the Shiv Sena when the mood had taken him. And he always has the best interests of the nation and Uttar Pradesh at heart when doing these things.
When asked about the hoardings asking Kashmiris to leave, images of which he shared on his Facebook page, Jani went on a tirade about Kashmiri students who support Pakistan and shout anti-India slogans on university campuses in UP.
Pressed about what authority he had to take any action against them and what consequences he was threatening, Jani pulled off the unique feat of quoting Gandhi as justification, and then describing a campaign of social apartheid that would have made a racist Rhodesian proud.
Promising Actions and Pertinent Questions
By the end of Thursday, it was being reported that the Meerut police were taking action, warning the Navnirman Sena that the hoardings had to be taken down. A case has also reportedly been registered, accusing Jani of spreading communal hatred and he is to be arrested soon.
A quick check of the Indian Penal Code will tell you that the hoardings fall squarely within the lines of section 153A, which punishes attempts to spread “disharmony or feelings of enmity, hatred or ill-will” between communities on the basis of, among other things, religion and place of birth.
A case based on these hoardings should be, I would think, the textbook definition of an open-and-shut case. Whether Jani will actually face any real consequences, however, is a question that only time will tell.
Perhaps the bigger question is how serious these kinds of threats are, and what they say about people like Jani, and our society at large. Jani is not the first person to threaten Kashmiri students recently – the thugs who beat up several of them in Chittorgarh, Rajasthan a day before, have that distinction. Tensions are high over what is going on in Kashmir, with hyper nationalists in the press, civil society, and the government, all happily playing at being on the warpath against dissent.
In light of this, there is a danger that the threats made by the UP Navnirman Sena are genuine, that they will actually follow through, and either attack Kashmiris in UP or orchestrate a campaign of ostracising them, and thereby forcing them out of the State. If either of these things were to happen, it would be a tragedy. For Constitutional rights, for democratic values, for common sense.
A Phantom Menace?
Jani and his goons are but a symptom of a problem that has begun to grip this nation. Indians, in general, have had great respect for their nation and armed forces, though there are numerous exceptions – some justified, some misguided. There is no harm in loving your country and saluting those who protect it.
What’s happening around the country now, however, is entirely different. Chest-beating nationalism is being used to do two things. First, it is used as a stick against anyone who tries to express any sort of dissent against the state, no matter how nuanced.
Secondly, it is being used to justify unconscionable actions by both the military and civil society. The recent incident of a Kashmiri being tied to an army jeep and paraded around, ostensibly to deter stone-pelters, is a perfect example of this.
On the one hand, anyone who questions such heavy-handed tactics is branded an anti-national, even a former Army General who held command in Kashmir. On the other hand, the need to clamp down on dissenters against the nation by any means possible (supposedly to save the lives of the Armed Forces), is being used by certain politicians and even some military personnel, to justify such actions, and legitimise them.
Kashmiris around the country are easy targets in the midst of this. They are more topically targetable because of the current unrest, more emotively targetable because of the Pakistan angle, and more exploitatively targetable because the majority of them are Muslim. Regardless of the fact that there are Kashmiri separatists who are a danger to civilians and the Armed Forces, there is no justification whatsoever to tar all Kashmiris everywhere with the same brush, and even those who are guilty of any wrongdoing must be dealt with in accordance with the law.
Jani himself is basically a bag of hot air that occasionally manages to let loose some annoying flatulence. His track record shows a desperate hunger for attention, and no real capability to do anything of note, or garner any sort of influence.
When I began this piece, I was filled with anger, ready to argue in detail how he had violated section 153A of the IPC, how he was an example of why India needs better laws against hate speech. But the more I read about him, the more I realised that people like him and his followers are in themselves irrelevant and incapable of ever being able to achieve any significant mischief.
Which is not to say that he must be taken lightly, or that his actions haven’t had consequences – it’s just that men like these will always try to draw attention, like those who file pointless PILs, even though they will not have a lasting impact themselves.
An Opportunity We Cannot Ignore
At the same time, we cannot ignore the fact that miscreants like Jani and his goons aren’t created in a vacuum. Even if they don’t actually succeed in physically harming anyone, they are actively involved in creating a culture of hate-mongering, of stifling debate, of intimidating anyone a mob doesn’t like too much. As a result, it is essential that people like them are stopped from acting with impunity, and further endangering the fabric of our society.
India does need better hate speech laws, and the Law Commission’s recommendations for amendment of the IPC to include more provisions are a start at getting us there. The current provision, section 153A, is actually not toothless. However, the punishment prescribed for speech of this sort is only up to three years’ imprisonment.
Further, the actions punishable are potentially a bit vague and if widely interpreted, could be used to target anyone even legitimately criticising some group. Free speech concerns may possibly be raised about the provision if misused, no doubt, but for cases such as these threats against Kashmiris, no ambiguity appears to exist, especially in light of Jani’s comments to the press.
Given how blatant and unrepentant Jani and his group have been, the opportunity to prosecute them to the fullest must be taken. While Yogi Adityanath doesn’t exactly have any moral high ground on this matter, this would be a good way for him to prove right all those demanding he be given a chance. Other BJP leaders like Rajnath Singh and Vasundhara Raje have shown the way by immediately condemning these threats and attacks, and one would hope Adityanath and the Prime Minister will follow suit.
In the meanwhile, we must stand in solidarity with those being browbeaten like the Kashmiris of UP, and stand up to the hate-mongers looking to tear us all apart. That would be patriotism and nationalism that is true to our Constitution, and true to the spirit of the nation India was meant to be.
(The writer is a lawyer qualified to practice in India and England and Wales and can be reached @VakashaS. He is currently working with a boutique tax advisory firm in Bengaluru. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)