In a major blow to Right to Freedom of Speech and Expression, Jawaharlal Nehru University Students’ Union President Kanhaiya Kumar along with other students has been arrested on grounds of sedition and criminal conspiracy. This was a repercussion of holding an exhibition on 9th February, which marked the execution of Afzal Guru titled “The country without a post office.” JNU Vice-Chancellor Jagdeesh Kumar has called it an act of indiscipline.
Rhyme and reason, crime and treason or in common parlance, asking for it. In a free nation, you can demand freedom from that nation and that, however unpatriotic, will fall within the freedom of speech framework. JNU had always been recognized for its democratic space and left politics. Arresting innocent students on criminal custody just because they were shouting ‘anti-national’ protests exposes the levels to which our current government has stooped down to.
A Fair Question
What would have those students achieved anyway with such protests, which in local JNU parlance, is an everyday affair? But instead, they were targeted, as if the government was waiting for an act of this intensity to happen, so that its occurrence could be highly escalated to preserve the right-wing rhetoric of the country. The current government is systematically targeting the educational institutions, be it the Rohith Vemula’s case or #ShutDownJNU slogan, creating a left ‘other’ that needs to be loathed, unheard and unseen, forcibly made invisible from the contours of political dialectics.
But within this entire hullabaloo, it must be noted that the president of JNU doesn’t run the show. S/he is not the high command, nor a general commanding the army. No one calls the shots in that university. Students can think for themselves and are responsible for their own acts, not the president. And this person is elected through an actual and clean democratic process. So, welcome to a thing called ‘democracy’!
JNUSU Vice President said: “They want to witch-hunt and target us, like they targeted Rohith Vemula. They want us to hang ourselves like Rohith did. Police are doing rounds of the campus and mindlessly witch-hunting activists. RSS is running campaigns to shut down JNU,” he added.
Shut Down JNU
This was the war cry on Wednesday (Feb. 10) as the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad launched a protest, fueling a fire that spread to Twitter, the bipartisan battlefield of partisan polemic. It sounded as spurious as the regular right-wing “anti-national” whine.
ABVP said ‘JNU is anti-national’. But JNU doesn’t need to shut down over some seditious sloganeering, but it should give the administration, both on and outside the campus, some serious heebie-jeebies. Because it goes beyond petty politics.
The idea of the government is to let JNU stay as an island of dissent, consistently portrayed as anti-national, to justify thousands of cases of suppression of dissent by the state nationwide. It is indeed the ‘othering’ of liberalism as unpatriotic. The current administration has made no secret of the fact that in its eyes, social conservatives are ideal and obedient replacements for real social scientists. Rewriting history is a top priority for them, as they envision an altogether different national project than the one that had been put in place in 1947. The Indian state has killed more Indian citizens than foreign troops, since independence. The case was the same during British rule. So as Saib Bilawal guesses rightly “anti-nationals” must be “purged” every now and then, for the good of the nation? Only the masters have changed.
Home Minister Rajnath Singh warned of “stringent action” against organizers of the protest. “Anyone who raises anti-India slogans or tries to put a question mark on nation’s unity and integrity will not be spared,” he said. Education Minister Smriti Irani said: “The nation can never tolerate any insult to mother India.”
After Kanhaiya’s arrest, teachers and students protested outside the Vice Chancellor’s office, demanding to know why students were being treated like “terrorists” and picked up from campus by plainclothesmen. A rival group of students belonging to the ABVP protested near the India Gate in the heart of Delhi.
“JNU has always been a university where there has been a vibrant culture. Excessive police action is uncalled for and has worsened the situation,” Professors said in a statement.
Left parliamentarian Sitaram Yechury commented in a tweet: “What is happening in JNU? Police on campus, arrests and picking up students from hostels. This had last happened during Emergency.”
The same Afzal Guru event happened a year before. No one said anything. Now, because the main critiques of the Modi regime are coming out from JNU, the state wants to discredit JNU. The police didn’t hesitate before lathi-charging (baton-charging) our fellow students whenever they protested against anything — at UGC, Jantar Mantar, or for that matter, anywhere. They even attacked journalists and broke cameras. When the event happened this time, the police just stood there vacantly for over two hours, and let the cameras soak in the crowds and slogans. Clearly the state is up to only ‘good governance’ and ‘development’, here. This was a trap for the students. They followed the bait and the government and media pounced, clearly.
D.P. Tripathi (Ex. President JNUSU arrested during the emergency) in a press release stated: “We condemn in the strongest possible words the high-handed police action in JNU. This is reminiscent of the dark days of the emergency when the state had swooped down on the campus and had arrested many on false and trumped up charges. While we hold no brief for those who raised objectionable slogans, the arrested students have been charged with anti-national activities, precisely the charges on which we were also arrested during the draconian emergency.”
It’s quite unfortunate that the same arrest took place when Editor’s Guild organized the annual lecture, inviting Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen to speak on ‘The Right to Dissent’. Sen quoted that we should be ‘committed to remove the un-freedom heaped upon us by our rulers.’ He rightly stated that “we have to work hard to protect our tolerance and plurality as well as dialogic democracy.”
So, is India truly turning into a fascist nation? If all those who disagree with RSS-ABVP, do not stand together in solidarity now as after Rohith Vemula’s killing, will they be picked up one by one and suppressed? Solidarity does not imply a common manifesto – it implies recognition of common concern for humanity and progressive ideas and recognition of fascism as a common enemy.
Shubhda Chaudhary is a PhD Scholar in International Relations in Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.
She also works as a Features Writer for think-thanks in Abu Dhabi and South Africa. She is a regular contributor to ViewsWeek.com
Follow her on Twitter at @ShubhdaC