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Sedition charge is not the solution for Kashmir’s alienation

Is the state going to tell us who to support in the FIFA World Cup?”

Am I going to be arrested for liking Rahat Fateh Ali Khan’s music

I cheered for Sri Lanka once. Does that make me a turncoat?

Are NRI’s who root for the Indian cricket team to be seen as traitors in their adopted countries? Twitter is outraged over 67 Kashmiris being suspended from a university in Meerut, UP and subsequently being charged with sedition (promptly withdrawn) for cheering the Pakistani cricket team against India during a one day match held on the 2nd of this month. While the outrage is justified, its expression misses a crucial point.

The key difference between the examples cited above and the Kashmiri students’ support of the Pakistani team is that the former are mere expressions of appreciation, not a form of dissent against another country. In the case of Kashmiris, their cheering for Pakistan is a political act. If you have spent time in Kashmir, you would know that young Kashmiris cheer for any team playing against India, celebrate India’s loss irrespective of who they are up against. It isn’t easy to sit through a cricket match with these guys. Their vitriol against India is intended to hurt and can make the most liberal of us flinch for a moment.

The reason one can continue to remain friends with Kashmiris is because they reserve their disdain for what they perceive as symbols of Indian nationalism and statehood. All the while, receiving individuals from various parts of the country with warmth and affection.

That said can this form of dissent be seen as ‘sedition’? By no means. Section 124(A) of the Indian Penal Code, 1870, a non-bailable offence, defines a seditionist as “Whoever by words, either spoken or written, or by signs, or by visible representation, or otherwise, brings or attempts to bring into hatred or contempt, or excites or attempts to excite disaffection towards the government established by law in India”. While a literal reading of these words indicates a broad ambit, the courts have rightly sought to limit their scope.

The onus to prove that said hatred or violence is a consequence of the alleged act of sedition or that the act in question was intended to cause disaffection, contempt etc. rests on the prosecution and is not easy to establish. This safeguard is in keeping with the Freedom of Speech and Expression guaranteed by the Indian Constitution. Sedition was kept out from the scope of Article 19(2), which prescribes limits to free speech, because the Constituent Assembly was vociferously opposed to inclusion of sedition as a ground for restricting free speech in India.

The law, a relic of the Raj, has been criticized for being archaic and ironically been repealed in the UK in 2010. Over the years it has mostly been misused to harass dissenters and activists like Binayak Sen. But slapping the charge against Kashmiri students cheering for the Pakistani cricket team and raising slogans of ‘Pakistan Zindabad’ is a new low.

It proves an embarrassing ignorance of the law by authorities. It is unthinkable that this charge will hold in any court of law. While this nature of sloganeering might have invited the ire of other students in the university and lead to a skirmish, it can hardly be seen to be an attempt to excite hatred against the government of India.

Like the CM of J&K, Omar Abdullah correctly pointed out on Twitter, “Sedition charge against Kashmiri students is an unacceptably harsh punishment that will ruin their futures & will further alienate them.” He went on to add that some of these students were recipients of the PM scholarship for Kashmiris and that their actions were “misguided”. “They need to introspect.” As do we.

Intolerance of Kashmiris rooting for Pakistan’s cricket team is commonplace in India. From Arnab Goswami shouting at them on national television saying cheering for Pakistan is not allowed in India to my friends from Aligarh Muslim University recounting how Kashmiri students were force fed sweets when India won a match and ragged for supporting Pakistan. But, as usual, the seamiest side of this divide manifests itself in Kashmir. After the match India lost on the 2nd of March, a young man was stabbed in Gulmarg by three army personnel and two civilians for supporting the Pakistani team. In comparison the students from Meerut got away for less.

After a full day of politicking, outraging and TV debating the charges against the students have finally been dropped. But the larger questions remain. What would make a minority group of students walk into a hall full of Indians and cheer for Pakistan? What would make them not want to fit in in the college they go to? What would make them want to mock India at any cost? Can a state demand respect after years of insensitivity and injustice meted out to generations from the valley of J&K? Are we right to be shocked that they have no affinity for our cricket team after years of alienation?

Proof of this alienation is everywhere in Kashmir. When hundreds of young boys and girls took the streets in the valley pelting stones and courting death and arrest in 2010 they were revolting against years of misrule, the draconian AFSPA and alienation. Protest is second nature to the Kashmiri youth- against disappearances, curfews, strip searches, torture, mass graves, withheld passports, illegal detentions, encounters, rapes and being second class citizens in their own home.

So to call their love for the Pakistani cricket team simply a matter of personal choice is to once again disregard their larger dissent. If the concerned, liberal citizens of Twitter had been just as conscientious and vocal against daily acts of grievous injustice that the state inflicts within Kashmir, perhaps they would have understood that these young men and women need more than respite from this lawsuit and suspension. Then again, if anyone at all had been listening maybe varsity halls in the heartland would not have resounded with slogans of Pakistan Zindabad.

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