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The Badri Seshadri arrest has to be seen in a broader context.

Leftists and liberals stand for free speech, the right to criticize. They uphold equality, dignity for all, and so on. They are all for change. Rightwingers venerate what is timeworn and sacred in society. They stand for strong nations founded on history-based values. They are not big into free speech or even media for that matter. As status quoists, they don’t like complainers and complaints. Across the world, the rightwing doesn’t see the media as telling the truth based on facts but rather as spinners of narratives. Same in India too.  

Very often, however, leftists and liberals fail to put into practice the values of free speech when it comes to right wingers. For the left and the progressives, free speech, individual freedom, opportunity and dignity are values that should serve the broader cause of progress in society.  

In the US, there was the classic case of the American Civil Liberties Union – a club of brilliant left-liberal lawyers – defending the right to free speech of the racist Ku Klux Klan in the nation’s Supreme Court. Not long after, however, the ACLU began to see fundamental Constitutional rights as tools to achieve their socio-economic goals, not as absolute values.

In India, too, when the right forcefully criticizes the left or the liberals in power, then the free speech value doesn’t apply to the right, apparently. The BJP is not progressive, so allowing space to it is not in society’s interest, say Dravidianists in Tamil Nadu.

The socially and economically progressive DMK government has consistently used the police and law-given powers to act against rightwing critics. Badri Seshadri is only the latest to face the DMK government’s wrath.

The arrest memo is out but not the FIR. And based on it, there is clearly no case for Badri Seshadri’s arrest. 

It is nobody’s case that Badri speaking in Tamil to a YouTube channel is going to worsen the situation in Manipur, inflame the Kukis, or bolster Meitei militants

Badri has been arrested apparently based on a complaint by a Perambalur lawyer who was aggrieved over a YouTube channel interview he gave. But that interview does not score even five out of ten on the incendiary scale. It is nobody’s case that Badri speaking in Tamil to a YouTube channel is going to worsen the situation in Manipur, inflame the Kukis, or bolster Meitei militants.

While informally chatting with this writer a few days before the arrest, Badri said his take from the interview was that he wanted to show that Manipur was far more complex than a straight Hindu-Christian narrative that the Dravidianists or Leftwingers in Tamil Nadu are projecting. But, given the nature of social media driven by clickbait, the headlines were a bit off, he said.

For the most part of the interview, Badri Seshadri is rather restrained. The essence is that this is a Meitei-Kuki problem that goes back to centuries. It is very complex. While the Kukis are recent migrants, Meiteis and Nagas are not. The Nagas have their own demands and projections. Not all Meities are Vaishnavites. 

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The origin of the current troubles goes to the court agreeing to ST status for majority Meiteis in a state where no one but Kukis can buy land in Kuki areas while anyone can buy land in Meitei-majority areas. As most media reports have pointed out, there is a drug trade element to the violence since the Biren Singh government moved forcefully against Kuki farmers supplying to drug cartels. So far so good. Badri Seshadri is on safe journalistic/academic terrain in all this. Not even The Wire that has made a name for itself as the media outlet most adversarial to the BJP and Narendra Modi has indicated in its reports that this is a Hindu-Christian problem outright, a la Gujarat.

Elsewhere in the interview, Badri plays social media influencer. He seeks to question Chief Justice of India Chandrachud’s observations that if the Union government does not act decisively in Manipur, the court will. In criticizing the CJI stepping into the realm of governance that is not the judiciary’s domain, Badri casually asks if Chandrachud will take a gun and shoot at perpetrators of violence. If he were giving an interview to print media, he would most likely not use these words. In any case, the print media reporters wouldn’t have quoted him verbatim.

In the same social media vein, Badri Seshadri says Kukis are not innocent victims. He then points out that Tamil Nadu feted Irom Sharmila, a Meitei, as an honorary Tamil and played up Manipuri women campaigning against the Army. He then comes down harshly on Tamil activists and Dravidianists seeking Army crackdown now. He is scornful about literary activists cutting-and-pasting Sri Lankan Tamil verses on the ethnic conflict there to Manipur. He scorns, yet again, Dravidianists saying the rape video that went viral showed Sanatanist disdain for women, asking if either the Meiteis or the Kukis would even understand the term Sanatana Dharma. He says the Christian dimension of the problem was why the European parliament sought to weigh in. Welcome to the rightwing world of ideas. 

Badri does fault the BJP for its governments, Union and state, not taking strong action. Recent reports suggest government backing or at least remaining silent on Meitei aggression.

Badri Seshadri then wants to make the point that the north-east is still heavily tribal and divided. Concepts like states and Union territories or even civil society have not really struck deep roots. Tribal conflicts are frequent and violent. Not long ago, the police of two states there fought pitched battles. Perpetrators of crimes are often paraded on the streets and summary justice handed out. To make that point, Badri says that we, as in “civilized, urban folk”, don’t indulge in violence if we have a grievance against someone but seek legal redress instead. We have given the right to violence to the police and the Army but in tribal society that’s not the case. If one tribe has a problem against another, chances are the aggrieved tribe will embark on a violent reprisal.

One could argue with this point of view. At the outset, such tribal values are very much alive in varying degrees across India. Honor killings are a direct example. Marrying within family, cousin marriages are the most common marriages in Tamil Nadu and they are living remnants of a tribal outlook – one that we often choose to ignore.

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Badri does fault the BJP for its governments, Union and state, not taking strong action. Recent reports suggest government backing or at least remaining silent on Meitei aggression.

Whether Manipur is of the same scale and so one-sided as Gujarat remains to be seen. We don’t know yet if that is indeed the case. Someone, somewhere will need to objectively study and show if Manipur is the Gujarat of the northeast, 20 years later. The question to be answered is whether the BJP that formed the state government as a Congress-like party that included Meiteis and Kukis has now sought to create a Hindu vote among Meiteis, and whether the Meiteis are increasingly identifying themselves as Hindu versus the Christian Kukis or Nagas, under the influence of the BJP. 

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