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Tuesday, July 17, 2018

No Proof Required: Deconstruction of a crime

Students, or anybody else for that matter, should be allowed to pontificate, as long as it doesn’t involve a crime — and mere words don’t constitute one.

Written by Surjit S Bhalla | Updated: February 19, 2016 3:54:17 pm
It is difficult to communicate with Saraswati, but can you imagine the goddess of knowledge not allowing a debate on patriotism? (C R Sasikumar) It is difficult to communicate with Saraswati, but can you imagine the goddess of knowledge not allowing a debate on patriotism? (C R Sasikumar)

As the nation stands conflicted over the JNU anti-national case, it is worth reviewing the antecedents of what happened. The demonstration that was to be held at JNU was in honour of Afzal Guru, the terrorist implicated in the attack on Parliament on December 13, 2001. This is the third year since his hanging by the UPA government on February 9, 2013.

Why would anyone consider holding a vigil for a convicted, and hanged, terrorist? Because of the legal murkiness associated with the case. Two facts surrounding the case are noteworthy: First, that there was a confession by Guru, which the Supreme Court (SC) found unreliable and stated that “it is also contended that the language and tenor of the confessional statement… was a tailor-made statement of which they had no knowledge” (Paragraph 174, SC Judgment). Therefore, “all these lapses and violations of procedural safeguards guaranteed in the statute itself impel us to hold that it is not safe to act on the alleged confessional statement of Afzal and place reliance on this item of evidence on which the prosecution places heavy reliance” (Paragraph 185, SC Judgment). Second, the evidence used to convict Guru was all circumstantial. There is nothing per se wrong about using circumstantial evidence to convict a person, but there does seem to be a problem with the death sentence for a conviction that is just based on circumstantial evidence. But seriously, would demonstrations in favour of Afzal Guru have any credibility if the evidence was substantially more than circumstantial? My guess is no.

Now, we move to the JNU campus on February 9, 2016. Permission to ex-members of the Democratic Students Union (DSU) to hold this “pro-Afzal” demonstration was granted by the newly installed, ex-IIT professor, Vice Chancellor Jagadesh Kumar. But,

for reasons not clear at present, Jagadesh Kumar agreed to a petition reportedly by ABVP representatives to overturn his own permission to the DSU, just half an hour before the “cultural event”.

At this stage, JNU administrators are in the dock for misusing their authority. Perhaps it is inexperience on the part of the VC who had never held any administrative job before; perhaps it was the “imagined” clout of the ABVP — the safe conclusion is that, at this stage, the JNU VC was wrong in cancelling the DSU demonstration. The DSU apparently said fine, we will hold our demonstration at the local campus dhaba. If students can’t convene at a dhaba to discuss politics over coffee, then this is not a campus anybody will attend.

Things get messy and confusing from this point onwards. The meeting was held, several other student unions (SFI, etc) joined in the demonstration/ discussion/ speeches. The ABVP members also came to this meeting, but the antagonisms present led to predictable shouting and sloganeering. No sedition here, or anything out of campus -ordinary. The problem — the problem — is that repulsive anti-Indian slogans were raised, that is, destruction of India (“Bharat ki barbaadi”). In addition, there were baiting slogans like Pakistan Zindabad (also heard on the cricket field) and slightly more problematic, one proclaiming Afzal Guru to be a “martyr”. However, there is no evidence to suggest that any of the DSU students were involved in the “destruction of India” slogan.

Note that there is no version that indicates that the person arrested, Kanhaiya Kumar, participated in any of this sloganeering. Apparently, the slogans were the dirty work of a non-student Kashmiri group. However, it’s the police’s job to find the truth. The next day (February 10) was another normal JNU day with speeches galore, including one by Kanhaiya Kumar, who made a speech in Hindi and the translation of which is available on The Indian Express website (https://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/kanhaiya-kumar-speech-jnu-row-is-this-sedition/).

I have read this speech, and quite honestly, it is no different than thousands of such speeches, made by thousands of college students, over hundreds of years and in scores of countries. Again, if such speeches did not exist, one would have to invent them for the sake of the honour of young and “middle-aged” students like the 27-year-old Kumar. Read the speech — is this what constitutes sedition? — or is his crime that he made a lame speech, or is his crime that he is a scapegoat head of the JNUSU? The people who have a genuine complaint against Kanhaiya Kumar are the thousands of students who have made similar speeches across the world and across time. So yes — complain about plagiarism — not much else.

But the inept handling begun by the VC is continued by representatives of the BJP, party and administration — a bungling of capital proportions if you will. First to weigh in was the Union HRD minister, Smiti Irani, who, as is customary for her, invoked religion, this time the Hindu goddess of learning, Saraswati, and said that “The nation will never tolerate insult to Mother India.” If this was not over the top enough, the home minister, Rajnath Singh, invoked the name of Hafiz Saeed, ace Pakistani terrorist, and stated that “The incident at JNU has received support from Hafiz Saeed. This is a truth that the nation needs to understand.” [This “truth” was based on what now transpires to be a fake Hafiz Saeed Twitter account].

Meanwhile, Kanhaiya Kumar gets arrested and is to be produced in court on charges of “sedition”. But the gang that couldn’t shoot straight continues to bungle and flounder like a fish out of water, or if you prefer, a headless chicken. Lawyers, in full view of the world, attack journalists and other lawyers at Patiala House court in the name of “nationalism”. If this was a film, it would be a black comedy along the lines of Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator. Let us call it the Dictatorship of Nationalism. Unfortunately, this is not theatre, nor cinema — it is real life, and shocking for all Indians to witness.

It is difficult to communicate with Saraswati, but can you imagine the goddess of knowledge not allowing a debate on patriotism? Hindu tradition is to practice the religion at home, within self, rather than on the streets. Ditto should be the case with patriotism. Each individual has her own definition of god, and likely their own definition of patriotism. I agree asking for the death to the country does not come under any definition of patriotism, and it would behove the government to confront the individuals who uttered these words, and “arrest” them for violating the peace of the campus.

On the other hand, it is very curious that Delhi Police (or the home ministry) has till date not determined the identity of the individuals who made the objectionable statement(s). Nor have the violent lawyers been charged with a crime, let alone arrested. Identity known, motive known, crime known — and yet no action taken for the blatant violation of law, legal practice, and common humanity.

Note the contrast in how the government is handling the two “crimes”. One capital crime is a student leader, making a common pedestrian student speech, who is being charged with sedition; the other non-criminals are violent lawyers, who have broken the law, who have beaten up journalists and fellow lawyers, and who are being lauded by the cops and, so far, been allowed to go free by the Modi administration.

How difficult is it to get this right? Not very. A few days after the incident (February 13), I tweeted twice. First, that “All who protested against Vietnam war in America raise their hand? The whole world will be in jail if logic of #JNUCrackdown followed”; a few hours later, the following “After 50 years of observation & some participation — it never pays to mess with students — benign neglect is ethically & politically correct”. Students, or anybody else for that matter, should be allowed to pontificate what they want, as long as there isn’t a crime involved — and mere words do not constitute a crime. The Modi administration may or may not agree with my first tweet — but I hope they recognise that there is much history, and much that is correct, with the second tweet. Let barking students bark.

The writer is contributing editor, 'The Indian Express', and senior India analyst, The Observatory Group, a New York-based macro policy advisory group

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