If an Open Letter is Considered “Sedition”, What Room is Left for Dissent in India?

Social Commentary

If an Open Letter is Considered “Sedition”, What Room is Left for Dissent in India?

Illustration: Reynold Mascarenhas

In a world of short, 24-hour news cycles and even shorter attention spans, that a story from July is making headlines in October is truly remarkable. After 49 celebrities chose to write an open letter to PM Narendra Modi earlier this year, their decision has come back to bite them, as an FIR was filed against them in Muzaffarpur, Bihar by local advocate Sudhir Kumar Ojha. 

The list of notable celebrities who lent their name to the anti-lynching, pro-tolerance message include historian Ramchandra Guha, actor Aparna Sen, filmmaker Anurag Kashyap, and classical musician Shubha Mudgal, among others. Their crime, according to the complainant? They “tarnished the image of the country”, “undermined the impressive performance of the Prime Minister”, and supported “secessionist tendencies”. Those are lofty accusations to throw at people who just wrote to the PM, but the FIR raises a bigger concern – when the space for dissent is shrinking, even a simple open letter can be misconstrued as an act of aggression.

It’s interesting that Modi – the subject to whom the letter is addressed – has not had anything to say about the open letter. Rather, it was Ojha who (presumptuously) took offence on the PM’s behalf and filed the complaint in August. And he was not Modi’s sole defender. Soon after the original letter went public, a second open letter with a counter-narrative was also published by supporters of the PM. Of course, there were no FIRs filed against the 62 authors of this letter, since it asked no questions of the government. Clearly, these two open letters were not created equal, but why does one attract so much censure while the other is forgotten within days?

The problem doesn’t lie with open letters in themselves, or even the response-writers would have been slapped with an FIR. Others have also written open letters to Modi and avoided the fate of Guha, Sen, Kashyap, and Co. Rather famously, former PM and Modi’s predecessor Manmohan Singh also wrote to him, as did a collection of retired civil servants, and also a group of leading economists. Like the open letter that attracted an FIR today, the tone of these earlier letters was hardly complimentary toward the government. And yet, their authors managed to avoid the litigious wrath of the PM’s supporters. 

It’s interesting that Modi – the subject to whom the letter is addressed – has not had anything to say about the open letter.

Suddenly, within the last few months, what was once a benign avenue for freedom of expression has become another battleground where people fight over the right to dissent.

Dissent formed the crux of the original open letter’s message. In calling for a reduction in the violence against minorities like Muslims and Dalits, and stating that there is “no democracy without dissent”, the writers hoped to establish a platform that could host an important conversation about the intimidating majoritarian tide that they felt was sweeping through the country. Unfortunately, their entire argument was washed away by the very same tide they were fighting against, as the FIR proved that there was indeed no room for dissent, or at least the sort in which they were interested. And this reality, where even a civilly worded letter by notable citizens can be held as evidence of seditious tendencies, is like a dystopian vision of what a healthy democracy should look like. If some of your society’s most celebrated members can no longer ask questions of the government, it’s a worrying sign.

It points to how much even our real-world discourse has been affected by the toxicity of social media and online arguments. Trying to shut down opposing viewpoints with litigation aimed at harassing the target is not too dissimilar to unleashing a troll army to hound those who criticise you online. In both pursuits, the target ends up prioritising their own mental health and well-being over stating their truth, and backing down from their opponents. And by manufacturing a walkout, their critics claim a victory.

Perhaps it was inevitable that this FIR would be filed. In 2019, the truth is no longer free, but comes at a price. The lines have been redrawn, and dissent is sedition, and criticism is treachery. The authors of the open letter might have known that before they wrote to the PM, but they just learned it again the hard way.