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Trying For Sedition? Not Yet

By Nawaz Gul Qanungo

04 November, 2010
Kashmir Times

To even remotely allow any similarity between such celebrated stalwarts of the Indian freedom struggle as Tilak and Gandhi with the likes of Arundhati Roy and Syed Ali Shah Geelani by trying them for sedition is something the Indian establishment can hardly afford. The obvious comparisons are far too damning

“In 1947, we were told that India became a sovereign nation – a sovereign democracy. But if you look at what the Indian state did [right] from the midnight of [August 15,] 1947, that colonized country… That country that became a country because of the imagination of its colonizer – the British drew the map of India in 1899… That country became a colonizing power the moment it became independent.” Arundhati Roy was talking at a public seminar in New Delhi this October 21, as has been reported endlessly in the last week or so. “If anybody has any shoes to throw, please throw them now,” she had begun moments before. “Kashmir has never been an integral part of India, however aggressively you ask me [if it is].”

Syed Ali Shah Geelani was among the people sharing the dais. She, along with him, came very close to being in the company of the likes of Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi for being tried for sedition – for “exciting disaffection towards the government established by law in India”. Just what did the Indian state do “right from that midnight”?

In 1947, on the 15th day of August, as India was celebrating its birth, one Muhammad Mahabat Khanji III, the last Nawab of Junagarh, decided to formally accede to Pakistan. He signed the accession documents on the same day. Junagarh was then a small princely state facing the Arabian Sea and surrounded on all other sides by India. It had a population of not more than half a million. In the following month, as Pakistan accepted the Nawab’s proposal of accession, India’s original lauh purush Sardar Vallabhai Patel, as the home minister of Jawaharlal Nehru, set perhaps the most important precedent to what India’s statecraft in the sub continent was going to be all about. He rapidly mobilized his armed forces, including the navy, to annex Junagarh against the stated choice of its ruler. Just like the Pakistan tribal fighters who invaded Kashmir.

But that’s not all that the Indian state did “right from that midnight”.

Patel’s wrath was not limited to the attack on Junagarh or his show of India’s intent to other princely states and the newly formed Pakistan. He held out another death blow at the same time to an unborn news service organization called Free Press of India and its originator Swaminathan Sadanand, the radical hero of Indian journalism who had for decades been crusading against the British rule, a legendary journalist who pervades the much forgotten history of the genesis of Indian media. When the government of India was preparing for the assault on Junagarh, the Nawab had already acceded to Pakistan, now an independent state. “Legally”, India should have taken the matter to Pakistan.

Sadanand’s newspaper, Free Press Journal, went ahead and published a report about what in all probability it believed was a step devoid of any morality, a “colonizing” mobilization of troops by India in order to annex the princely state. But, Junagarh was annexed just as quickly as Sadanand’s wings were brutally clipped. His plan of launching Free Press of India, an international news agency that was meant to be based in India, was throttled after Sardar Patel refused him the necessary government clearance. This happened after Sadanand had already set up his bureaus in as far as London and Washington.

Who, then, was Sadanand? A fiercely independent and painstaking journalist, an anti-establishment man who had had a long and bitter experience during the British rule – long before the midnight. In a bid to counter the pro-British propaganda of Reuters and Associated Press, the only news agencies working in India those days, Sadanand started his Free Press News Service in 1927. To his dismay, while newspapers paid for his feed, they published the content in a distorted tenor that served their own purpose. Sadanand looked for alternatives and found one in a dwindling Madras-based newspaper, The Indian Express. Sadanand bought the paper and turned it around in no time. But he lost control of the newspaper to Ramnath Goenka, a major stakeholder, after a controversial court battle in 1935. Sadanand converted his Free Press News Service in to the Free Press Journal newspaper while concentrating on his plans of an Indian global news agency. He died in 1950, three years after Patel had busted his Free Press. His legendary Journal collapsed soon afterwards and, for obvious reasons, it remains largely forgotten as well.

What is significant, however, is that the struggles of Sadanand serve as a critical link to how the policies of the establishment vis-à-vis the freedom of expression and speech remained unchanged before and after the British had left. The state of the press in India hence under the British does not seem to be too worse. The famous trial of Bal Gangadhar Tilak – and that of Gandhi more than a decade later – serves a lesson even today. As the struggle for independence was gaining momentum, the need for putting across the Indian view point against the British rule was felt more than ever before. Bal Gangadhar Tilak, with his Kesari and Maratha, and later Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, with Harijan, Navajivan and Young India, etc, had vociferously taken up the fight for freedom of the press.

In 1909, Tilak was tried by the British for sedition when he justified a bomb attack on a District Judge by what the British called Indian “terrorists”. Two innocent women, though not deliberately targeted, had got killed in the attack. What Tilak wrote in Kesari is a significant pointer for our times and deserves to be recalled in major part:

“This, no doubt, will inspire many with hatred against the people belonging to the party of rebels. It is not possible to cause British rule to disappear from this country by such monstrous deeds. But rulers who exercise unrestricted power must always remember that there is also a limit to the patience of humanity… True statesmanship consists in not allowing things to reach such an extreme stage… Where government neglect their duties towards their subjects, the occurrence of [such] calamities is inevitable… The authorities have falsely spread the report that [these] bombs… are subversive of society. There is an excess of patriotism at the root of the bomb… If bombs are to be stopped, government should act in such a way that no ‘turn-headed’ man should feel any necessity at all for throwing bombs. When do people who are engaged in political agitation become ‘turn-headed’? …The real and lasting means of stopping the bombs consists in making a beginning to grant the important rights of Swarajya to the people…”

Expectedly, Tilak was sentenced to six years of prison in exile. The final exchange between Tilak, who was defending himself without a lawyer, and the Judge is very interesting. Tilak maintained: “In spite of the verdict of the Jury, I maintain that I am innocent. There are higher powers that rule the destiny of men and nations and it may be the will of providence that the cause which I represent may prosper more by my suffering than my remaining free.” The judge on his part censured Tilak thus: “You hail the advent of the bomb in India as if something had come to India for its good. I say, such journalism is a curse to the country.” For those words of justification for “good” violence, and for such “journalistic curse”, Tilak is worshipped even today as one of India’s greatest heroes in its struggle for freedom from the British.

As Roy said in that Delhi seminar, “the Indian state militarily intervened in Manipur, in Nagaland, in Mizoram, in Kashmir, in Telengana during the Naxalbari uprising, in Punjab, in Hyderabad, in Goa, in Junagarh.” But things couldn’t have been taken too far for comfort. So the new colonizing power stopped just short of being too similar to its own colonizers. Sadanand was destroyed but not tried for sedition. The obvious comparisons would have been too damning. But while Sadanand remains forgotten even within the Indian media, not to talk about the public at large, to ignore an Arundhati today would hardly be as easy. But to even remotely allow any similarity between such celebrated stalwarts of the Indian freedom struggle as Tilak and Gandhi with the likes of Arundhati Roy and Syed Ali Shah Geelani by trying them for sedition is something the Indian establishment can hardly afford. The obvious comparisons are, even today, far too damning.

The writer is a Srinagar-based journalist. Follow him at www.drqanungo@gmail.com