Apart from the Rights to Equality, and to Freedom of Expression of Thought, the Constitution of India also guarantees the Right to Live with Human Dignity, which automatically vouchsafes legal protections for “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” regardless of a person’s caste, religion, gender or ideological inclination. It is largely because of these principles that India is today not just a nation, but also an idea that serves as a beacon of inspiration amidst the chaos of the middle east, eastern Europe, South Asia etc. If India is to keep marching to ever higher objectives, we need to collectively keep raising difficult and uncomfortable questions about our numerous socio-economic and political problems, for it is only then that we can address or redress them.
Recently, in the spirit of that onward march, a dozen students organised a meeting in Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) to “stand in solidarity with the struggle of the Kashmiri people for their democratic right to self-determination” and to protest “the judicial killing of Afzal Guru and (separatist leader) Maqbool Bhat”. Since then, JNU has faced heavy flak and its students branded as anti-national for raising these “unpalatable and pro-Pakistani issues”, as someone callously characterised it. We need to ask ourselves this: do we really not want to resolve these issues? There are raging debates the world over on whether capital punishment really works as an effective deterrent to future crimes or criminals. In relying on it, should we not ask ourselves whether we’re being reparative/just or whether our Aztec like sacrifices reek of vengeance? On the other thorny issue, should we not seek to overcome the historical-cultural and developmental issues that have alienated large sections of Kashmir with the mainstream (it is worth noting that India faces similar predicaments in the North East and Left Wing Extremism affected districts)? It is worth asking ourselves on how we can substantively address the concerns of these sections of society? These are serious questions, and need careful reflection and deliberation, and a university is the best place to do so. After all, Jawaharlal Nehru once said that “a university stands for…tolerance, for reason, for the adventure of ideas and for the search of truth…If the Universities discharge their duties adequately, then it well with the nation and the people”.
Instead of encouraging a culture of debate and consideration (that our Constitution guarantees), the BJP has chosen to not only penalise an entire student community based on the incendiary slogans raised by a minuscule section of the people present at the event, but also legitimised violence as the first and last resort of resolving issues. They have adamantly refused to condemn the Akhil Bhartiya Vidyarthee Parishad (ABVP), who in behaving like Nazi stormtroopers, arbitrarily escalated the issue by marshalling goons with the sole purpose of assaulting the few students at the event. If they were genuinely concerned about the issues raised, or the manner in which they were raised, they ought to have reasoned with the sloganeering few of the speciousness of their means. Instead of engaging in a healthy discourse, when other student groups came out in support of the organisers of the event, and when Kanhaiya Kumar (JNU’s student union president) condemned the ABVP’s bid to resort to violence, like chastened bullies, they scampered for help from their political handlers in the BJP.
The BJP on its part conveniently ignored that the JNU Students’ Union, as well as all student groups (except ABVP) criticised the divisive sloganeering in a civilised and peaceful manner. Secondly, they did not even bother to ascertain the facts before slapping a sedition charge on Kumar (who rushed to the event only to urge students against raising divisive slogans and to persuade the ABVP from resorting to violent means). In his speech at the spot, Kumar argued that “we trust the constitution of this country. If anyone challenges the constitution, be it the Sanghis, it won’t be tolerated…we don’t need a patriotism certificate from the RSS”. Does this sound even remotely seditious? To any objective observer, the BJP seems to have slapped the charges against Kumar solely to make an example of him, so as to dissuade anyone from critiquing the RSS.
Furthermore, if anyone in the BJP had bothered to run even a cursory check, they would have realised that a five judge Constitution bench of the Supreme Court made it abundantly clear in Kedar Nath Singh vs Bihar that allegedly seditious speech and expression may be punished only if the speech is an ‘incitement’ to ‘violence’, or ‘public disorder’. Numerous other cases (“Indra Das vs State of Assam”, “Arup Bhuyan vs State of Assam”, as well as “Shreya Singhal vs Union of India”) have consequently reiterated this. Legally, there is a clear distinction between advocacy and incitement, and only the latter can be punished. The students at JNU were most certainly not advocating the violent overthrow of the government so the NDA has no locus standi in accusing them of sedition.
It is highly likely that this article will be caricatured, so a caveat becomes essential here. The purpose of this article is not to legitimise incendiary sloganeering or even glorify separatism, but this episode has raised some deeply worrying questions. Is the ABVP (and by extension, the BJP)’s patriotism so skin deep that it gets offended by a few students engaging in a dialogue? Even if the protest meeting sought to question the government’s official policy, is it justified for the BJP to mistreat a group of students like a full blown revolutionary army on the cusp of a bloody civil war? And equally pertinently, is the BJP henceforth going to treat any questioning of government policy as seditious?
The BJP’s conduct since it took office has been despicable. The manner in which the NDA has suppressed any opinion contrasting to the Sangh’s is starkly reminiscent of Nazi Germany (incidentally, this is something that Prime Minister Modi used to great effect under his stewardship of Gujarat. Editors, like those of the Surat Samna and the Times of India, were routinely harassed with sedition charges for any criticism of CM Modi). Secondly, apart from the larger question of the impropriety of the BJP constantly interfering in the internal affairs of educational institutions (remember Hyderabad University, IIT-Madras, FTII etc.?) what business do the BJP’s legislators have in getting involved in altercations between students? Is this what we’ve elected them to do? Thirdly, why does PM Modi behave as if he’s the prime minister only of those people who agree with him? His government has ruthlessly attacked anyone who dares to reason, with charges of treason. Martin Luther King once argued that “the ultimate weakness of violence is that is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy”. The BJP will do well to remember that, lest our students start arming themselves with weapons (rather than ideas).
As a society, we must defend freedom of speech and expression throughout India, even when it rakes up something difficult or controversial. We must especially defend these freedoms in our universities because most of India’s future leaders will emerge from them. India needs thinking, compassionate and deliberative students who will devote themselves to thoughtful and careful examination on issues of national interest. That can only happen if students and teachers (as also all peoples’ throughout India) are allowed to engage in a sustainable dialectic, unfettered and free, something which is guaranteed by the Magna Charta Universitatum (to which a number of universities in India, including the JNU, are signatories). If we expect to even hope to address the rapidly evolving socio-economic and political realities of India, our government must ensure that universities must be independent of all political interference, something that the NDA has colossally failed in. For our collective sakes, our commitment to the fullest intellectual and moral development of India’s future generations must be absolute. Any threat to this must be countered with steadfast determination and strength.
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