The dismal saga that began with the arrest of JNUSU president Kanhaiya Kumar on charges of sedition, after a protest on campus to commemorate the hanging of Afzal Guru, goes on. On Monday, students and journalists — including two of this newspaper — were assaulted by lawyers and a BJP MLA inside and outside the premises of the Patiala House Courts, where the hearing in the sedition case was to begin, while the police looked on. It was a sobering spectacle. That journalists should be targeted and labelled “anti-national” for doing their job, that such an attack should be mounted in a space meant to be the citadel of justice, and that it should be unchecked by the police, should bring a moment of pause. Monday’s outrage doesn’t just appear to confirm the sense of rights and liberties under seige. It also carries a message for the government that it can ill afford to heed.
The media in India has endured attacks more savage. Over the decades, it has also acquired a self-confidence and a thick skin that an attack like the one on Monday can scarcely unsettle and bruise. But after Monday, the Modi government needs to reflect on the perils of the inaction — or of the dangerous messaging, as when the home minister invokes Hafiz Saeed — at its top echelons in this entire episode. There are two possibilities here: One, that the government is riding an animal it is now helpless to control. That is, having mobilised and emboldened those like BJP MLA O.P. Sharma, who took it upon himself to teach a lesson, violently, to a CPI leader for allegedly abusing “our mother (India)” in Monday’s melee, it finds it difficult to call a halt to a careening display of their chauvinism and intolerance. Or two, that at its top echelons, this government calculates that a debate, even if raucous, on “nationalism”, actually serves its political interests at a time when it is seen to be losing the initiative, politically and vis-a-vis the economy.
If it is the former, it is a sad commentary on a government that prides itself on its decisiveness and control. And it would raise a question that it cannot evade: How is it that, having come to power on a promise to rewrite the India story, it is now letting those like MLA Sharma run away with its own script? If the confrontation with the students and the attempt to intimidate the media are part of the government’s own script, then it must remind itself of this: It owes the large mandate it got in 2014 not just to the rousing of the base, but more crucially to its success in persuading and attracting those outside its boundaries. By hardening and shrinking its politics now, it stands to lose far more than it could possibly gain.