Police action at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi on Friday, including the arrest of the JNU students’ union president on charges of sedition, over a protest, was completely uncalled for. The protest in question was part of an event held on campus to commemorate the hanging of Afzal Guru and Maqbool Bhat, convicted of terrorism. The arrest followed Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh’s stern announcement that “anyone who raises anti-India slogans or tries to put a question mark on nation’s unity and integrity will not be spared”. HRD Minister Smriti Irani chimed in with the warning that “the nation can never tolerate any insult to Mother India”. The Union ministers’ response has been strikingly disproportionate to the alleged offence caused by the shrill tone of the protest of a small section of the students within university premises. This was a matter for the vice chancellor, if not the students themselves, to settle. It ill behoves the Union ministers of home and HRD, who surely have more important issues and controversies to attend to, to have plunged into it.
The protesting students questioned the legitimacy of the Indian state over Kashmir. But the Indian state has endured far more powerful storms. Individuals have a right to protest as long as they do not threaten or resort to violence — in this case, many student groups in JNU, while criticising police highhandedness, have dissociated with the strident slogans raised at the protest. The university must provide a safe house for free thinking and debate, and a nurturing environment for the exercise of the democratic right to dissent. Attempts to criminalise the freedom of expression on campus, or to subdue it by labelling it “anti-national”, cast much more unflattering light on the working of the Indian state than on a motley group of students who got carried away.
That a protest in JNU has touched off such agitation in the corridors of power reveals, at the very least, a lack of understanding, or a misunderstanding, of the role of the university. Recent incidents like Rohith Vemula’s suicide at the University of Hyderabad, the controversy over the Ambedkar-Periyar Study Circle at IIT Madras, the furore over a film screening at IIT Delhi, and the unrest at FTTI, Pune, have all featured a heavy-handed and fumbling state. Things will only worsen if ministers, who must step in to advise administrators about the need for dialogue and negotiation, themselves foreclose the possibilities of a conversation. Given its big talk of the demographic dividend, the Modi government can ill afford the message sent out by the police action against students protesting Rohith’s death earlier, and in JNU now — that it feels threatened by young men and women democratically disagreeing with it.
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(This editorial originally appeared in the print edition under the headline ‘Do not disagree’)