Nearly three years after former JNU Students Union president Kanhaiya Kumar and former students Umar Khalid and Anirban Bhattacharya were arrested and later released on bail for allegedly shouting seditious slogans, the Delhi police have filed a chargesheet in the case. The chargesheet raises new questions with its timing — when the general election is upon the country — and, as a corollary, the motivation behind the framing of the charges.
Beyond the matter of guilt or innocence of the accused, which is for the courts to decide, the events and narratives around the February 2016 episode marked the beginning of a new kind of politics over the idea of the university. A disturbing binary was created between patriotism and nationalism on the one hand and freedom of thought and expression on the other. Universities, even in free societies, allow a greater space for provocative ideas and political discussions that may make many uncomfortable. That for three years, the might of the Indian state has been used, literally and symbolically, to punish students for expressing ideas, seems to send out a message to students across the country: There are limits to their thought, and “innovation”, that oft-touted phrase in policy documents, must not extend to ideas that disturb the sentiments or sensibilities of a political constituency outside the campus. The notion that the university as a space and an idea suffers from a nationalism deficit has been further strengthened by symbolic incursions in the JNU campus. The vice-chancellor requested an army tank to be placed on campus to “instil nationalism” among students. Rather than remain a space where ideas are tested and nuanced, the campus has become a space for polarising rhetoric.
As recently as April 2018, JNU was ranked among the top 10 in the country by the Union Ministry of Human Resource Development. That ranking, a measure of excellence, is not despite the dissent and disagreement that the likes Kumar, Khalid and Bhattacharya offered. It is an integral part of it. Sedition, the primary charge around the events that occurred on February 9, 2016, is the remnant of a colonial penal system whose existence depended on curbing freedom. Last year, the judiciary decriminalised homosexuality and stood by the right to privacy, ensuring that the citizens of India are a little more free than they used to be. In 2019, it seems the ball is, once again, in the court.