By Rahul Menon:
Events over the last month have pitched the Government against university students, brute force against peaceful protest and the freedom to dissent. The abominable conduct of lawyers in the Patiala House Court as well as the actions of the Delhi Police has brought about widespread condemnation from students, teachers and intellectuals from across the world. Instead of addressing the root cause of the conflict, the BJP Government has sought to double down on its stance, defending its version of nationalism by insisting that all central universities fly a 200-foot flag in the interest of promoting nationalism and national unity.
Countless writers have already stressed on the importance of protecting free speech in a democracy, as well as how the raising of mere slogans does not constitute sedition. In their excellent analyses, they have demonstrably proved that the sedition charges cannot and will not stick, as well as the dangers that arise from persecuting debate and dissent.
My point is different; the current conflict reflects the contempt that the BJP government has for established institutions and procedures. Much of their tenure has been marked by an attempt to influence the working of established institutions, from educational institutes to the Reserve Bank and even the judiciary. At every point in this conflict, the Government has not only neglected the role of institutional processes, it has actively worked to subvert them. The University – as well as the tradition to debate and dissent – is under siege from the ones we have elected to be custodians of constitutional democracy.
In this climate, how can one be sure that Umar Khalid will be awarded a fair trial? The strength of a democracy lies in the fact that everyone – regardless of their actions – is presumed innocent until proven guilty. The mob assumes guilt and allows one no avenue to establish their innocence.
Moreover, it is telling that the ones who repose their faith in institutions are precisely the ones who have experienced the worst forms of marginalisation in recent history. Dalits, tribals and Muslims have been subject to the worst excesses of the Indian State. The BJP does not have a monopoly over marginalisation; much of these crimes were carried out in the rule of the UPA Government as well. Yet supporters of Rohith Vemula and Kanhaiya Kumar continue to fight their battle through the established procedures of our democracy, in welcome contrast to the willingness of the Patiala House lawyers to take matters in their own hands. This is because these institutions do not simply mark abstract notions of citizenship and rights; they represent a very real challenge to the rule of arbitrary social hierarchies that have characterised our social landscape for centuries now.
The similarities in the cases of Rohith Vemula and Kanhaiya Kumar cannot be ignored. In the former instance, a letter from the Union Minister of Employment and Labour urged the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) to look into the actions of “anti-national” student organisations. Protesters have highlighted this pressure from the State and condemned its interference in the working of the internal mechanisms of the University. In JNU, the police did not even wait for the University to carry out its inquiry. Acting with alacrity, they swooped in to arrest Kanhaiya Kumar on the basis of extremely flimsy evidence. The correct sequence of events should have been for the University to have investigated these claims by the setting up of an inquiry committee made up of teachers and members of the University.
Things went from bad to worse. The scenes from the complex of the Patiala House Court showcase the utter breakdown of law and order in the capital, where justice was sought to be removed from the ambit of the court and delivered by the mob. Sections of the media gleefully went along for the ride, fanning the flames of hyper-patriotism without stopping to ponder on its role in a democracy.
Let us accept for argument’s sake, however, that the offence of shouting anti-national slogans is too serious to be left to the University, and it is a matter for the police to take up. In the first instance, there is absolutely no evidence linking Kanhaiya Kumar to the alleged crime; even the most cursory reading of the submitted evidence makes that clear. News channels are now reporting that the videos shown on national news do not show the full story, highlighting the ludicrousness of claims that Kanhaiya Kumar indulged in anti-national activities.
Secondly, even if we accept that the Delhi Police had good reason to suspect Kanhaiya of sedition – a heroic assumption indeed – then the matter should be heard by the Courts with the police providing proper safety to the accused in order to uphold the sanctity of the judicial process. While criticisms have all focused on the role of the Police Commissioner B.S Bassi, and rightly so, the behaviour of the Home Minister must also be called into question. The statement by Rajnath Singh linking Hafiz Saeed to the protests of JNU students on the basis of a fake tweet is astounding in its absurdity, criminal in the licence it gave to the associated mobs to ramp up the rhetoric against Kanhaiya. The Government has set a dangerous precedent in not allowing events to run their proper course.
The MHRD’s solution to these problems beggars belief. The problem is not, as the Ministry seems to think, a lack of patriotism, but the violation of the sanctity of constitutional procedure to deal with transgressions – both real and perceived – of law. During the Emergency of Indira Gandhi’s time, the autonomy of institutions was directly curtailed. The BJP seems only too happy to bypass them altogether.
As much as the BJP would like to term every opponent as being anti-national, the truth of the matter is that the protesters have time and again reposed their faith in constitutional democracy. JNU students have called for a free and fair trial for those accused of sedition, away from the hooliganism of the mob. The protesters in Hyderabad have called for the introduction and strengthening of laws to protect Dalit students from discrimination. Their commitment to upholding the principles of democracy stand in clear contrast to the willingness of BJP legislator O.P. Sharma to transgress the bounds of his elected duty.
This is not to say that the mechanism by which justice is delivered in this country is perfect. If we believe in the maxim that justice delayed is justice denied, then the dragging on of cases for decades effectively denies justice to a majority of our citizens. Time and time again we have seen the courts clear those falsely accused by the police of being terrorists or Naxals, yet nothing can compensate them for the years spent languishing in jail. False cases can be used as a deliberate tool to harass and intimidate people, given the glacial pace at which cases can be heard in court. Regressive judgements in rape cases are all too common. The marginalised of the country find themselves disproportionately burdened by such an environment, for it is clear to see how inequalities of wealth translate into inequalities of access to justice. In spite of this, the student protests in Hyderabad and JNU show us that those who have the most to lose in such a system are the ones who show the greatest faith in them.
This is not surprising. For those who have long been victims of India’s iniquitous social order, the constitution stands out as a beacon of hope, as it represents a system of governance guided by the rule of law and reason, rather than that of an oppressive hierarchy. The strength of such processes – both in the University and in the Court – is necessary to ensure that those accused of a crime receive a fair hearing and to protect them from the abuses of discretionary power. It is precisely this reason why students from JNU and Hyderabad are protesting; their affirmation of the strength of constitutional processes carries within itself a trenchant critique of the myriad ways in which power – economic, social and political – exercises itself. No doubt that the judicial system requires a number of reforms, but there can be no functioning democracy that does not envisage a role for reliable mechanisms of justice, for to dispense with them is to turn the clock back to a time when India was caught in the brutal chokehold of an oppressive social system.
The right wing realises that their case holds no water in a court of law, and have thus forced a trial in the courts of the media and public opinion, both spheres in which there exist no checks and balance against the ruthless exercise of power. By refusing to take account of any of these issues, the BJP government has conclusively demonstrated that their version of nationalism is one that is blind to the realities of marginalisation and discrimination faced by many today. The solution advanced by the MHRD diverts the discourse effectively from the failure of the State to uphold due process towards the nebulous notion of nationalism. We will all now be involved in debating whether the proper form of nationalism should involve fealty to symbols or the freedom to criticise State actions. In erasing the thick lines between prosecution and persecution, the BJP has pit itself against those who have been pushed towards the margins and are now fighting for their rightful place in a constitutional democracy.
Disclaimer: The views here represent that of the author and not of the institution he belongs to.
Photographs by: Manira Chaudhary