Many were taken by surprise when the National Investigation Agency filed a chargesheet citing the use of phrases like “comrade” and “Lal Salam” as evidence to substantiate charges of Unlawful Activities Prevention Act and sedition against Assam student leader Bittu Sonowal. A Facebook post in which Sonowal shared a photograph and quote by Communist leader Lenin was also recorded as evidence.
First, they came after the suspected meat in your kitchen. Then they came after the religion of your lover. Then they came after the song you sang at Shaheen Bagh. Then they came after a poem you posted on Facebook. Now, they are coming after a form of greeting.
In college, we were fascinated by the history of revolutions and introduced to the international revolutionaries. Our dinner table conversations in the hostel mess revolved around the stories of Che Guevara, Rosa Luxemburg, and Martin Luther King Jr . Like a young school kid excited to learn something new, we even named our respective WhatsApp groups after these revolutionaries. Addressing each other as comrades and greeting with ‘Lal Salam’ became a daily ritual despite most of us keeping no association with the Marxist ideology.
Remember the 2006 Aamir Khan-starrer Rang De Basanti? It had the same rigour and fierce revolutionary flavour of those who say ‘Lal Salam’. Without uttering the phrase, the film still managed to pay salutation to the revolution. The song ‘Khalbali’, the actors spray painting ‘Inquilab Zindabad’ across the walls of the city, were all a reflection of youth’s fascination with rebellion.
In his famous novel ‘1984’, George Orwell talks about the concept of ‘thoughtcrime’ — where even thinking in opposition to the regime is an unacceptable offence.
Nearly sixty years after the dystopian novel was written, with a cheerful greeting being termed an offence, it seems that thoughtcrime isn’t too far.
But in India, the language policing applies to those who do not agree with the larger establishment and try to go against the BJP’s ideology.
A woman named Ragini Tiwari was doing facebook ‘LIVE’ using provocative slogans, invoking Hindus to fight to revive the lost glory of Sanatan Dharma — the original order of Hinduism. She even yelled that Hindus must resort to violence to do this.
None of her posts have been termed hateful and neither has she been charged with any crime, despite clearly promoting communal hatred and inciting violence. As we all know, neither BJP leaders Kapil Mishra nor Anurag Thakur have been booked for their inflammatory speeches just before the Delhi riots either.
Saying ‘Lal Salam’ and nodding to one another is not proof that a person is a traitor or a terrorist. Nor is writing the phrase on Facebook or Twitter. It also does not make a person Communist. ‘Lal’ refers to revolution, and ‘Salam’ means salutations — one who says ‘Lal Salam’ is essentially bowing down in front of revolution.
‘Lal Salam’ signifies solidarity with those who are working on the ground, trying to change an unjust system. It doesn’t mean they are armed Maoist insurgents. Even those who distribute food to jobless workers in the coronavirus lockdown say ‘Lal Salaam’ to each other.
Bhagat Singh and many other revolutionaries used to shout ‘Inquilab Zindabad’, which is another form of paying tribute to revolutions. If Bhagat Singh were alive today, would he, too, have been charged with sedition for addressing his friends as comrades?
Revolution in pop culture
These terms have also become a part of pop culture and are quite popular among youth. While the term comrade also refers to ‘friend’, ‘ally’ or ‘colleague’, the political use of the word was inspired by the French Revolution, in which it evoked a sense of camaraderie among people from different professions and classes, be it peasants or workers.
These phrases are also few of the many communism-related things that have made their way into pop culture like the omnipresence of Che Guevara. The graphic illustration of the Argentine Marxist revolutionary’s face can be found world over on all kinds of merchandise such as T-shirts, caps and bags. From England’s Prince Harry to American rapper Jay-Z, celebrities, too, have been spotted wearing T-shirts with his photo. A historical figure who advocated Communism all his life, has ironically become the poster boy for capitalists. What’s next? Will the government now go after those wearing Che T-shirts?
College students in India should be allowed to use words like comrade and share photos and readings of Marx and Lenin the same way people share pictures and quotes of extreme Right-wing figures like Savarkar. The same way the RSS can use ‘dhwaja pranam’ (salutation to its saffron flag), ‘Lal Salaam’ should not become a reason for arrests and sedition charges.
Views are personal.