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Better sense prevails

By escalating a students’ squabble over sports into a national issue, state briefly undercut own authority.

March 7, 2014 1:13:17 am

By escalating a students’ squabble over sports into a national issue, state briefly undercut own authority.

A contingent of Kashmiri students in Meerut’s Swami Vivekanand Subharti University was arbitrarily suspended because a few of them cheered Pakistan’s victory over India in the Asia Cup tournament, and other students found this unpalatable. India-Pakistan matches are invested with great emotion, and in this case, a skin-deep cricket nationalism combined with the refusal to confront the disaffection in Kashmir as well as the suspicion of minorities in communally divided Meerut.

While disagreement among the students may have been expected, the university’s actions were unacceptable. Without listening to the Kashmiri students, it suspended them for not divulging who among them had cheered for Pakistan. Instead of averting violence or impartially resolving the dispute, it sided with the aggrieved majority.

What’s inexcusable, however, is that for a while, forces of the state vindicated and repeated the university’s folly, charging the Kashmiri students with sedition. Rooting for the wrong team apparently threatened the foundations of the Indian state. Sedition law, Section 124A, is a colonial encumbrance. In post-Independence India, the Supreme Court has qualified the circumstances under which it can be used, and in the famous Kedar Nath Singh v State of Bihar, clarified that there must be a real threat to public peace.

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By invoking it in this situation of a few high-spirited students supporting a rival team, the UP administration revealed its own panicky reflexes. A few years back, career provocateurs like Arundhati Roy and Syed Ali Shah Geelani had been similarly charged with sedition for holding forth at a conference on azadi in Kashmir. No matter how much these stands annoy other citizens, the state betrays its insecurity by reacting so ferociously to them. Consider the message this action had sent to Kashmir, or Kashmiri students around India. It told them that they could not be trusted as full citizens, allowed to express any offending thoughts, even one as trivial as preferring a certain sports team over another.

By bearing down on a few students with the full weight of official power, the state made it into a confrontation over the soul of Kashmir. Instead of displaying the generosity of spirit that befits the world’s largest democracy, this action had made India look small. Thankfully, the UP administration has withdrawn the charges now, and much of the credit goes to other Indian citizens who expressed their justified outrage at this pettiness.

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