‘Anti-national’ is a paradox of the ‘national self’, a negative from which we develop a positive picture of the latter that holds true in diverse narratives. Constitutionally, a citizen is a self that is independent and remains equal before all others as far as exercising our fundamental rights is concerned. Free speech is one of them and Kanhaiya Kumar, the JNUSU President, was just exercising that. In JNU, a meeting was called on the death anniversary of Afzal Guru, a Kashmiri who was hanged on circumstantial evidence to satisfy the ‘collective conscience of the society’ as the Supreme Court of India ruled. It would be unrealistic to imagine no Kashmiri presence in such an event and would be even more unrealistic to expect their silence on such an occasion. The country should feel proud of having a university like JNU, where politics is taken perhaps more seriously than any other university in India. It is a university known for its openness, free thinking, debates, critical culture, and assertion of rights and for justice, where almost all marginal voices find a vent. Just like anti-national is the paradox of national self, margin remains the paradox of the centre/mainstream.
Kanhaiya Kumar, being the youth leader of JNUSU, practiced nothing unconstitutional and uttered nothing seditious. JNU is his constituency and students voted him to be the leader of the students union. One of the controversial slogans was “Bharat ki barbaadi tak jung rahegi, jung rahegi”. Those having observed protests in Kashmir valley would raise no eyebrows at such a slogan because for many Kashmiris it is their everyday tussle with India. Not long before, in India, we were familiar with similar slogan regarding Kashmir i.e. “Doodh maangoge, kheer denge; Kashmir maangoge, cheer denge” raised by the right wing forces to claim their rights over the land they consider an integral part of the nation. Officially, all political opinions are allowed but in practice, there are laws and claws that suppress some voices or the other. I see no difference in both the slogans as both of them are in bad taste. If the first one is seditious then the second one is no better.
As for students charged with sedition, the government needs to consider a few things: that (a) exercising one’s fundamental right is no crime (b) the event and the slogan raising were peaceful and within the campus boundary of JNU (c) dissent is the spirit by which a critical culture survives and a healthy political dialogue is possible (d) crackdown on JNU curtails and silences institutional autonomy (e) police action against students will only lead to further unrest among youth in general and students community in particular. The government should not forget that three members of ABVP have resigned and distanced themselves from the policies of the BJP. On the other hand, BJP MLA’s and lawyers’ behaviours at Patiala High Court towards students and journalists have not been appreciated by many. More importantly, it is unlawful.
Now, at JNU, students are not able to attend classes and are busy organizing protests against the government’s unnecessary and uncalled for intervention in the matter. This is understandable as the person arrested is the president of JNUSU and such a move by the government will inevitably make the best of our minds, insecure. Hence, fear is the atmosphere that is being perpetuated through the suspected henchmen of the ruling government in almost in all corners of the country – be it the Dadri killing over beef eating or Rohith Vemula’s suicide or the targeted killings of intellectuals or targeting a campus known for nurturing dissent. As far as the mindset of the right-wing cadres is concerned, it goes without saying that they are totalitarian in nature and do not understand and respect dissent.
The government seems to have learnt no lesson so far from humiliating defeats in Delhi and Bihar assembly elections in 2015. Ostensibly, what comes across is that the ruling party is getting desperate to regain its ‘face’ after the losses suffered in the two states. Clearly, the slogans of ‘good governance’ and NaMo wave did not work in Delhi; nor the ‘review of reservation’, hefty ‘packages’, and Dadri killing worked in its favour in Bihar; nor will the student community forget Rohith Vemula’s suicide; nor will the targeted killing of individuals and attack on our fundamental rights be tolerated by the silent majority.
It is time we start debating the review of sedition law with legal, statistical and ethnographic knowledge; in practice it has been invoked or (mis)used innumerable times against our own citizens, who are often poor and marginalized people, except the ideologically driven ones. Most importantly, it is often the youth and young professionals upon whom the sedition law is applied. Sedition law, once invoked carries the threat of destroying an individual’s life, career and future prospects. Who can/will/should compensate for this loss? And can it be compensated adequately ever as it is a phase in one’s life that can be ruined during the lengthy process of seeking justice? It is always the family that suffers unnecessary and unwanted harassments through the investigation agencies, media and society.
The Indian state should be liberal enough to tolerate dissent as long as there is no immediate incitement of violence against the state. Moreover, the university already maintains a Proctorial office to address issues. It is the university authorities that should ask questions from its students first. Shouting ‘anti-national’ slogans in a peaceful manner is more a sign of protest than sedition and we must not lose our sense of balance with the media agog over a specific brand of nationalism that suits the proclivities of the ruling regime. Else, Samuel Johnson’s famous quote ‘patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrel’ would prove worthy of mention.