Friday 8 April 2016

The JNU Fiasco

HRD minister Smriti Irani said that the nation would never tolerate any “insult to Mother India”. It was a reference to the anti-India slogans that were raised during a protest meeting at Jawaharlal Nehru University, to mark the third anniversary of the hanging of Afzal Guru, convicted of being the mastermind of the Parliament attack in December 2001.
It was a tough statement, no doubt. And it was bolstered by an equally iron-jawed one from home minister Rajnath Singh: “If anyone raises anti-India slogans and tries to raise questions on the nation’s unity and integrity, they will not be spared,” he said.
And right on cue, the police swooped upon JNU, which has always been a fount of left-wing liberalism, and arrested the university’s student union president Kanhaiya Kumar on charges of sedition and criminal conspiracy.
Sedition? Seriously?
I, for once, would never support any move to idolise a convicted terrorist, much less approve of those who are prone to anti-India diatribes. But to arrest a university student leader, whose involvement in the controversial sloganeering is far from proven, on that charge is an outrageous over-reaction. Under Section 124a of the Indian Penal Code, one is guilty of sedition if one conspires to overthrow the Constitution and makes speeches that are an incitement to violence. Hence slapping the sedition rap on Kumar is utterly disproportionate to the alleged “crime”, and makes the state look irrational and paranoid
In truth, Kumar’s arrest evokes a chilling déjà vu. Just a month ago Hyderabad Central University student Rohith Vemula had committed suicide after he and four other students were systematically targeted, and then suspended. The university’s Ambedkar Study Association, of which Vemula was a prominent leader, had organised a protest last August after Yakub Memon was hanged for his involvement in the1993 Mumbai blasts. It is alleged that the HRD ministry sought action against Vemula and others after BJP MP Bandaru Dattatreya wrote to Smriti Irani.
 Significantly, both at JNU and in Hyderabad, Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the youth wing of the RSS, had clashed with protesters, who were on the other side of the ideological divide, adroitly turning this into a nationalism-at-stake cause celebre, which of course lends credence to the charge that the BJP and the Sangh Parivar are using hyper nationalism as a stick to beat their ideological opponents into silence and oblivion.
The point is that dissent has space in our body polity. A difference of opinion, no matter how shocking or odious to some, cannot be muzzled on the pretext of nationalism. If anti-India slogans were shouted at that meeting, it is wrong according to me and to you too perhaps. Our Constitution guarantees freedom of speech and expression within reasonable limits, and slogans at a student meet albeit ill-judged and volatile, can hardly be deemed to have breached those limits.
Besides, it is upto the university authorities to carry out disciplinary action, if any, against students who may have violated the rules and regulations of the institution. JNU has already barred eight other students from academic activities pending a probe. Why then did the police have to jump the gun and take the student union president into custody? Is it any wonder that students and many teachers feel that this is just a “witch-hunt” on the part of ABVP (backed by the state) to nail Kumar, who is a member of the leftist student body, AISF?
It has been pointed out that the last time a JNUSU president was arrested was during the Emergency. If that move was a display of noxious authoritarianism, how is this different?
A place of higher learning profits from a ferment of ideas — radical or run-of-the-mill, sacred or profane, right wing or left wing, revolutionary or not so. It is a crucible of pluralism, the smithy where our tolerance for each other’s views is forged. Besides, it is in the nature of youth to defy the establishment, to go against the grain. Protesting any form of injustice — real or perceived — comes naturally to them. Some may go too far, some may push the boundaries only so much; some ideals may be flawed and some utterly stellar, but this is the time of life when one tends to fight the most fiercely for them.
A university is the last place where the state machinery should go in with all guns blazing, trying to punish radicalism, trying to stamp out this or that idea. You do that and you kill the spirit of the institution. You do that and you’re only a few steps away from a Tiananmen Square.
Our honorable HRD minister would do well to remember that “insult” to Mother India happens not just when a few odd students let off a few anti-India shouts. The insult rings loudest when the “idea” of India is bruised and violated, when men are lynched for their alleged food habits, when an African girl is thrashed for simply being an African, when politicians routinely make anti-women and rape-friendly remarks, when women are raped, a slothful and ponderous, criminal justice system takes decades to punish the guilty. 
By all means let us pledge not to tolerate insults to Mother India. But let that effort not be selective. Let it not be confined simply to throwing one’s weight around in academia.

                                                                                                                              Abhishek Mukherjee
                                                                                                                          ( PG MEDIA 2015-2017)


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