All That is Not a Crime

There is no law against sympathising with an ideology, even Maoist

Dilip DSouzaDilip D’Souza

A few months after the 9/11 attacks, I attended a press conference of some kind in Mumbai, I can’t remember what. Towards the end, an intrepid journalist put up his hand and yelled: “They are displaying posters of Osama bin Laden! When are you going to arrest them?”

I wasn’t sure who he meant by ‘they’, nor even who he meant by ‘you’ — the conference had been called by two retired judges — but I was intrigued by this demand. So, when I got a chance, I made my way through the room to his side and asked: “What do you want them arrested for, again?”

“For displaying posters of Osama!”

“Got it,” I said. I had heard him correctly the first time. “But tell me, what’s the crime here?”

“Displaying Osama’s posters!” he spluttered.

“But what’s the crime in that?”

Unable to splutter any more, he looked at me, bewildered and incredulous that someone might actually challenge his demand.

“There’s a law!” he said finally. “Give me your number. I’ll call you tomorrow with what it is, exactly.”

I gave him my number and made sure to take his as well. A few days later, there was nothing from him, so I called. He repeated his promise to tell me ‘tomorrow’. As you can guess, most of 17 years later, he hasn’t called.

Why? Because there is no such law. There is no law against displaying a poster of anyone, Osama included. I mean, I’m sure the man finds Osama and/or his images repellent — so do I — but not even such distaste makes merely putting up a poster of Osama a criminal act. Nobody who knows the law would, in their right mind, seek to arrest someone for doing so.

In fact, I believe it’s not even about knowing the law. It’s about knowing the spirit and meaning of democracy — the form of government that, for better or worse, for every imperfection in theory and practice, we Indians have chosen. In a democracy, you cannot have a law that makes displaying an image of a crime. It’s that simple.

In much the same way as that journalist did over Osama images, plenty of people loudly demand punishment for those who have ‘Maoist sympathies’. This call found renewed vigour, of course, at the end of August, when the Pune police raided the homes of activists and lawyers across the country and sought to take five into custody. This is not the place to dissect the reasons the cops proffered for this action, to the extent they were able to proffer any. Instead, I want to first focus on the substantial approval their actions found among citizenry of a certain persuasion. You know whom I mean: folks who like to wave about epithets like ‘sickularist’, ‘libtard’ and ‘urban Naxal’. For these people, the epithet is enough. Using it absolves them of any fidelity to logic, reason, or indeed the law itself. So, it’s no wonder they graduate from what they think is abuse to what they think is a crime to be punished, and in the process offer me plenty of moments similar to the one with the journalist who never called.

“Maoist sympathisers”, they say, lip curling. “Must be arrested.”

Not during a press conference, but a couple of days in late August, I had arguments on Twitter with a few people — just like with the journalist who never called. “Dream up whatever names you like, I said in a tweet — ‘urban Naxal’, ‘half-Maoist’ and ‘sickularist’”. Those are just words, after all, and if people want to fling them about that’s their prerogative. But “even if you have ‘Maoist sympathies’, what is your crime?”

Here’s a sample of the hand-waving that resulted, via tweets, direct messages and even email:

* “Having Maoist sympathies [is] not a great idea.”

* “Supporting Maoists may not be a direct crime but enabling them to unleash violence against the state certainly is.”

* “Sedition.”

* “Being a Naxal is a crime and… Maoists need to be terminated asap.”

* “Being a Maoist sympathiser is ughh.”

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