Why I Think Important Issues Were Sidelined By Extremist Voices In The JNU Row

Posted on April 1, 2016 in Society

By Abhineet Dey:

Activists from various Hindu right-wing groups shout slogans during a protest against the students of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) outside the university campus in New Delhi, India, February 16, 2016. REUTERS/Anindito Mukherjee - RTX275UR
Image credit: Reuters/Anindito Mukherjee.

It is always easy to take an extremist stance. Like in the case of JNU, some people went out of their way to disparage the Indian union in blatant disregard for the sentiments of others.

Similarly, “rejecting RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat’s suggestion for infusing patriotism, AIMIM leader Asaduddin Owaisi has said he will not chant ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’ even if a knife is put to his throat, prompting Shiv Sena to taunt that he should go to Pakistan.”

We should note that you, me, and everyone else including both Owaisi and Bhagwat know that it’s highly unlikely that someone is going to put a knife on anyone’s throat just for that. It is human nature to exaggerate things to give weight to what we really want to say.

The thing is, freedom of speech is something that can never be subdued unconditionally. To quote Andre Brink,

“When the conspiracy of lies surrounding me demands me to silence the one word of truth given to me that word becomes the one word I wish to utter above all others.”

Take the case of the Khalistan movement, where separatist forces were gaining ground long before the 70s. Subsequent developments accentuated the quasi-militant situation in the region and at its height, with little to no options for the government, Operation Bluestar became the epitome of this troubled history. And this is something that continues till today. But, why? The simple answer is that we failed to listen. Silencing voices and opinions do not kill the idea itself. Unless and until we hear out the people expressing dissent, we will never know where the problem actually lies.

There are so many unfortunate victims of the 1984 anti-Sikh riots. Nothing will make them forget Operation Bluestar and the riots that followed soon after. Nor will any hatred that they might harbour against the government and the people responsible for the crimes disappear on its own.

As Kanhaiya Kumar said in his speech:

“Who is Kasab? Who is Afzal Guru? Who are these people who have reached a point that they are willing to blow themselves up?”

That should be the topic of discussion, and not whether the students are getting suspended or not.

If you think that freedom of speech is something that’s being misused by these people, then you are right to a certain extent. In my opinion, the students should have been more tactful when they were going for the Afzal Guru card. His hanging was completely uncalled for, especially due to the complete lack of any reliable evidence against him. Even Amnesty International was against the action.

“Today’s execution of Mohammad Afzal Guru indicates a disturbing and regressive trend towards executions shrouded in secrecy and the resumption of death penalty use in India,” it had said in its statement when Guru was hanged.

Read: ‘The hanging of Afzal Guru is a stain on India’s democracy

However, the students took it a little further with slogans like ‘Har ghar se Afzal niklega!’ But, why? So, a group of students believe that Afzal Guru was framed, had no role in the attack on the Parliament and that his capital punishment was wrong. However, they erred in making it seem as if they were supporting the crime that he had been associated with in the first place. And the slogans like ‘Bharat Ki Barbaadi Tak Jung Rahegi, Jung Rhegi’ and the subsequent media uproar (featuring doctored videos and false accounts) simply made matters worse.

(Mohammad Afzal Guru was a Kashmiri separatist, who was convicted for his role in the 2001 Indian Parliament attack. Independent commentators have questioned his sentence stating that he did not receive adequate legal representation and that his execution was carried out in secrecy.)

All this, to me, seemed like a big waste of our time. The students themselves expressed their views with anger and youthful vigour, instead of focusing on the clarity of their communiqué. There is a reason we should listen and learn from seniors and elders alike. Secondly, the people of India, mainly the youth and young adults in this current mood of ‘revolution’ and ‘change’ focus most of their anger and energy via social media and on demonstrations instead of on real-time actions. What happened with JNU was just another phase of intense debate across the nation. There was this line I came across in an interview conducted by The Indian Express with Princeton University president Christopher L. Eisgruber which bears repetition:

“It is a fundamental advantage for a university to be able to tolerate even offensive kinds of speech and to respond to bad arguments when they are made with more speech rather than with disciplinary actions.”

That’s the right attitude. A university is a place of learning and growing. It is where ideas are respected, the old and the new alike. It is where man’s biggest strength, the very foundations of humanity’s progress, finds its strongest roots: knowledge.

The right-wing archaists and the left-wing anarchists, the few extremists from both sides who make most of the headlines making a mockery of the rest of us who discuss prudently in lesser decibels, this is for them. A university is a place for learning. It is really fortunate that such a debate was started in such an esteemed institute of learning but sadly, instead of inspiring ideas, it inspired the varmints in us.

A version of this article was published on the author’s personal blog.