Politics of Sedition in India: The JNU Affair


Sakshi Maharaj, a religious leader, an MP from the BJP and known, inter alia, for glorification of Gandhi’s assassin, said:

Instead of keeping them in prison for whole life, people arrested in connection with the incident at JNU should be hanged. Alternatively, they should be killed with the bullets of the police… Terrorism has now knocked at the door of universities such as JNU.

Carl Schmitt in India

Statements like Maharaj’s clearly craft as well as echo violent politics a la Carl Schmitt, the German thinker. In The Concept of the Political, Carl Schmitt wrote: “The specific political distinction to which political actions and motives can be reduced is that between friend and enemy.” To Schmitt, this distinction was basic to politics as was the antithesis beautiful/ugly in aesthetics, good/evil in moral sphere and profitable/unprofitable in economics.

Before he became the PM, in an election campaign Modi himself asserted such a politics, if only by denying it: “There is no enmity in democracy but there is competition.” Still earlier while he ruled Gujarat as its chief minister, BJP’s election posters had Pakistan’s President Pervez Musharraf’s image showing Modi and him as enemies.

Through the JNU incident, the government and much of the media are engaged in escalating the already prevalent politics of friend versus foe. Terrorism and treason/sedition are its chief carriers. The reasons this politics is unfolding are two fold: Such a politics is rooted in the very BJP/RSS ideology bearing more than an affinity with European fascism as Jairus Banaji, Marzia Casolari, Kannan Srinivasan and others have shown. Second, politics of sedition and terrorism becomes a tool to hide its failures to create jobs, improve economic, social conditions of the poor Indians. Simultaneously, it crushes democratic protests by Dalits, minorities, students, women, workers and others.

It is hard to predict whether or not this politics of enmity will succeed. However, India also has a tradition parallel to that of the likes of Maharaj’s nationalism and its constitutive other –“anti-national” – verily Muslims. Philosophers such as Iqbal and Tagore respectively described nationalism as “a subtle form of idolatry…[a] deification” and “venom of modern history…bestially absurd”. Arguably, JNU – whose alumnus the author is –is an important site of that critical tradition.

JNU has often differentiated patriotism –whose obverse is repression, un-freedom, and oppression – from nationalism whose enemy is “contamination”, diversity, inclusion, dissent and religious-racial “impurity”. However, patriotism may slide into nationalism because “fascism is a form of nationalism”.

“Son of A Bitch… Traitor”!

Before midnight of February 12 in Melbourne, I made a public post on my Facebook about media debate on the JNU affair. I commented about Times Now, which along with Zee TV were in forefront of fanning this issue. Within an hour, a gentleman from Indore (not my Facebook friend) privately messaged: “You are the son of bitch. How dare you act against country?” Soon another one came from Kolkata (in Hindi): “Leave India… no room for traitor… Illegitimate child of the bastard”!

Will I ever receive a message saying: “Let’s abolish all national borders soaked as they are in blood? We all are legitimate children of Adam and Eve.”

Humanity is yet to mature to thoughtfully say: the enemy across the borders is indeed a friend and most friends within the borders, if redrawn, would become an enemy. Let’s pay homage to, as well as go past, Socrates’ Apology and Crito wherein he defended himself against the charge of sedition and resolved not to abandon the city that voted to hang him.

(Irfan Ahmad is Associate Professor of Political Anthropology at the Australian Catholic University, Melbourne)

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