Romila Thapar: It’s a notion that came with the colonial government. In the pre-modern period, there were no references to sedition. There were no nations in those days, so opposition would only be to the ruling authority. But once the idea of the nation came to be established, then the question of making comments hostile to the nation or to the colonial government became a reality, especially with the growth of nationalist sentiment. Sedition was brought in by the British Indian government and made into a law for governing India. The dictionary meaning of sedition draws a distinction between advocating the overthrow of the government or violence, and inciting the overthrow of the government or violence. It is the inciting which is seditious, not just talking about it. This is a differentiation that is extremely important. Unfortunately, it is a distinction that people have forgotten because of the way in which the word has been tossed around these days.
RT: The thought that crossed my mind was that what they’re trying to suggest about sedition vis-à-vis the nation in India, is becoming somewhat like blasphemy in the context of religion. As far as the Hindu religion goes, there cannot be anything really close to blasphemy because there isn’t a regular creed and a regular belief system that every Hindu has to conform to. There are all kinds of Hindus, who have all kinds of beliefs, and they are counted as Hindus under this umbrella term. Therefore, blasphemy is very difficult to define in a religion of this kind.
RT: I wouldn’t say that as a people we are politically insecure. I think we’ve certainly proved ourselves to be a viable democracy in times of crisis. The relative smoothness with which we have changed governments is really, very impressive. But what it does suggest is that those politicians who almost routinely accuse particular persons of being anti-national, they are the ones who are insecure and lack self-confidence—or at any rate, the confidence to rule.
RT: Well, you said that, I didn’t say it! Yes, I think there is an ideological, historical background to this that we have to understand. The ideology of the party in power today is that of the RSS. What is the RSS ideology? There are two things that I think they regard as central. One is to convert India into a Hindu rashtra [nation]. This goes back to our experience of the varieties of nationalisms that we have had. Our major nationalism was anti-colonial nationalism, which was an inclusive nationalism. Everybody was brought in and the intention was to throw out the colonial power and to be an independent nation. But in addition to that, in a relatively lesser role at that time, in the early twentieth century, there were organisations such as the Muslim League that was arguing for an Islamic state, and the Hindu Mahasabha that was arguing for a Hindu equivalent. Some label these two as religious nationalisms, some call them communalism, and some describe them as being influenced by fascism. Whereas the anti-colonial nationalism had a nationalist agenda in that it was opposed to colonial rule, and worked towards a secular democracy, the other two communal organisations were not essentially anti-colonial, and their aim was to inherit a Muslim and a Hindu oriented state, after the departure of the British. Their role in the anti-colonial movement was therefore minimal. Secular democracy was not how they envisaged the future.
The debate on anti-nationalism routinely recurs each time there is an RSS-linked party in power, but it recurs in different forms. For instance, in the 1960s and 70s, some of us historians wrote textbooks for the NCERT [National Council of Education Research and Training] that were used in state schools. But, when the Morarji [Desai] government came to power in a coalition with the Bharatiya Jana Sangh [in 1977], an anonymous letter to the prime minister stated that these textbooks were anti-national and anti-Indian, and therefore, they should be banned. The debate about whether these books were anti-national or not went on back and forth in the newspapers. Then, in about three years, the government fell and the textbooks stayed in place.
RT: I think the Constitution is quite clear about the fact that whatever constitutes the Hindu is something apart and is not a priority for being the Indian citizen. The Indian citizen draws on many more identities... Read more: