At a lecture organised by the Editors Guild of India in Delhi on February 12 economist and Nobel Prize winner Amartya Sen spoke about the many colonial era laws in our statute books that were entirely at odds with the liberal spirit of the Indian Constitution. Sen’s observation could not have come at a more appropriate time. The same day Jawaharlal Nehru University Students’ Union (JNUSU) president Kanhaiya Kumar was arrested on charges of sedition – a legal provision formulated and routinely invoked by our erstwhile colonial masters to crush any opposition to their writ.
The state deemed Kumar guilty of sedition because he had allegedly raised anti-India slogans on February 9 at a meet to commemorate the hanging of Afzal Guru, convicted of being the mastermind of the attack on Parliament in 2001. When they surrendered to the police last week, Umar Khalid and
Anirban Bhattacharya, two other students who had participated in the controversial event and had been absconding since then, were slapped with the same charge.
There are two disturbing aspects to the JNU case. First, that the government thought it fit to charge a bunch of students with sedition because they had shouted some rash – and undeniably objectionable – slogans. (Although, there are now serious doubts about the authenticity of the video footage on which the Delhi police’s case against Kumar is based.) And second, the fact that the crackdown on these so-called anti-national elements at a prestigious university, a crucible of free thought, is being spun into a noisy, divisive war –patriots versus traitors, good versus evil.
Indeed, ever since Kumar’s arrest we have witnessed an appalling display of organised fury against JNU, traditionally a bastion of left wing thought. Television channels, ever on the hunt for unflagging TRPs, have burned and blared with righteous wrath at the way some students were “trying to break up this country”.
Lawyers at Patiala House courts in the heart of Lutyens’s Delhi have gone berserk, apparently in a fit of nationalist fervour, and beaten up Kumar when he was produced in court. Some assaulted journalists and academics too – all this, while the police stood by and watched the mayhem. And we’ve had a steady gust of heated rhetoric from the BJP-led NDA government – a rhetoric of jingoistic nationalism ready to do battle with enemies of the state lurking in academia.
HRD minister Smriti Irani declared that such insults to Mother India would not be tolerated. Home minister Rajnath Singh thundered as eloquently – before falling to the embarrassment of stating, on the basis of a fake tweet, that JNU’s pro-Afzal Guru activities were supported by Pakistan-based Jamaat-ud-Dawa chief Hafiz Saeed. JNU was reviled as a “hub of terrorism” and BJP President Amit Shah and many others repeatedly sought to juxtapose the patriotism of our soldiers in the brutal climes of Siachen (where 10 men died the previous week) against the “treasonous” acts of these students – an utterly despicable attempt to politicise the heroism of the Indian armed forces.
The government’s paranoid reaction to what was, in effect, an undesirable show of student disaffection cannot be overemphasised. In 1933 the Oxford Union held a debate on the motion “This House will in no circumstances fight for its King and Country”. The motion’s supporters were widely denounced as anti-nationals, communists and even sexual deviants. But no one thought to jail the offending students. In the 1960s huge numbers of students and university faculty members in the US actively opposed the country’s war in Vietnam. They weren’t arrested for acting against the interests of the nation either.
The government is clearly using an antiquated sedition law to strangle freedom of speech and bludgeon dissent, especially that emanating from the other end of the ideological divide. Indeed, the events at JNU bear an uncanny similarity with those at Hyderabad Central University last year. As in JNU, there too members of the right-wing Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, the BJP’s youth body, had clashed with left-wing student leaders over a protest against the hanging of Yakub Memon, also a convicted terrorist. Bandaru Dattatreya, a local BJP MP, sought action against the “anti-national” elements at the university. Prodded by the HRD ministry, the students were suspended, ultimately leading to Rohith Vemula, a Dalit research scholar, committing suicide in January this year.
No right thinking Indian would side with a terrorist who has waged war on our country. But is the Indian state so unstable that the misguided excesses and radical protests of a few students can knock it off balance? No right thinking Indian would believe that either. However, the sordid fact is that the BJP and the Sangh Parivar as a whole have so muddied the discourse with this sudden call to arms against so-called “student anti-nationalism” that rational thought is increasingly giving way to the kind of thuggery and mob violence that one witnessed at the Patiala House courts last week.
In the introduction to her book Leadership: Essential Writings by Our Greatest Thinkers, Elizabeth Samet, a professor of English at US military academy, West Point, writes about the way leadership today is incomplete without an accompanying crisis. “If we live in a world of crisis,” she says, “we also live in a world that romanticises crisis – that finds in it fodder for an addiction to the 24-hour news cycle, multiple information streams, and constant stimulation.” And the spectre of crisis, writes Samet, also makes us vulnerable to “the false prophets, the smooth operators, the gangsters, and the demagogues” who tell us they can save us.
The crisis of anti-nationalism being whipped up in India today is meant to serve a similar purpose. The government is clearly setting itself up as the saviour, the lone bulwark against the destructive ploy of traitors, especially those who nestle in institutes of higher education. However, India is too heterogenous an entity to be swayed by such specious stratagems and polarising tactics. Prime Minister Modi rode to power not just because the BJP’s core constituency voted for him, but because large swathes of the population, especially the youth, put their faith in a new and dynamic leader who held out the glittering hope of “sabka saath, sabka vikas”. The government’s crackdown on students who hold opposing ideologies could make Mr Modi lose the youth vote as staggeringly as he had won it in 2014.
The law of sedition has been used by all manner of governments to put down all manner of dissent in India. It has been used against cartoonists, against those agitating against the Kudankulam nuclear plant. Lately, it was used against Gujarat’s Patidar poster boy Hardik Patel. The charge rarely sticks in a court of law. Even so, it’s a noxious colonial relic, an instrument of suppression, that’s best done away with. Unfortunately, the alacrity with which the sedition law was invoked in the case against JNU students, and the ferocity with which it is being defended, suggests that it is here to stay for a long time to come.