Politicisation of the JNU-crisis
Where do I stand on the crisis in Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), arguably India’s best? Many friends have asked me this question over the last few days. Before I answer, let us see how the crisis sprang up. It resulted from the “illegal” meeting by a section of the students where slogans like ” Kashmir ki azadi tak jung chalegi. Bharat ki barbadi tak jung chalegi” were raised. Subsequently, the Police came inside the campus and arrested the President of the JNU Students’ Union (JNUSU). He has been slapped sedition- charges. Some of the teachers and students were also allegedly
beaten inside a lower court complex, where the sedition case was being heard, by a section of the lawyers. However, the University authorities have found, prima facie, some students, including the JNUSU President, guilty and have temporarily suspended them. The ongoing agitation in the JNU by the students and teachers is now being supported by many other campuses, including the one in Kolkata (Jadavpur University) where the demonstrators gave similar slogans in favour of known Kashmiri terrorists and the separation of Kashmir from India; in fact, here they went one step further to demand for the liberation of Manipur from India!
In my considered opinion, the JNU crisis throws basically two main issues. On one hand, we have those who say that in a democracy that India is, freedom of expression and thought is absolute, and hence the government cannot intervene just because somebody highlights and demand something, as long as this does not result in violence. On the other hand, there are those who say that no rights, even if they are fundamental rights, can be absolute, particularly when it involves the nation’s unity and integrity. For them JNU is turning anti-national and does not deserve the central government’s largesse, which, in turn, is taxpayers’ money. And these honest tax payers, who are paying for students’ education, must not pay any more for their anti-national politics, so runs their argument in favour of the “closure” of the university.
Where do I stand then? Well, I am as much a proud JNUite as anyone else. I was also active in student politics in JNU like many. I was also a part of JNUSU. And because of Police atrocities inside the JNU campus, once I was first lathi-charged and then sent to Tihar Jail for 21 days (that time the Congress party ruling at the Centre ; and those were not the Emergency days. So Police-entry in JNU is nothing new). And here are my views:
First, it is absurd to describe the JNU as an anti-national university. Well, there are some anti-national elements and they must be identified and ostracised. But for them the whole university cannot be generalised as anti-national. This university has produced some of the best in every field, be it academia, bureaucracy, corporate, media or military. Whatever I am today is because of this university.
Secondly, as I believed in my university days, there are great virtues in the right of dissent and freedom of speech and expression, something I have always promoted as an editor. I think that in a democracy the best way thorny issues are resolved is through debates and discussions, not through violence. And that is why I strongly condemn the violence on the JNU agitators in the local court the other day. In fact, in this issue of the magazine, I saw to it that three former Presidents of the JNUSU contributed on the present crisis, even though I do not subscribe to their views exactly on the subject. I have also ensured that my staff highlighted the views of other past JNUSU Presidents like CPM leader Sitaram Yechuri (whose politics I fought against in the campus but maintained a healthy respect for him), D P Tripathi (a Member of Parliament) and Prof. Anand Kumar (with the latter two I have always had wonderful personal equations, even though I do not agree with their politics).
Thirdly, and this is important, I draw a very clear distinction between being anti-establishment and being anti-national. In my JNU days, we never debated on the sanctity of India’s nationhood, its unity, integrity and democratic political system, let alone condoning those who challenged these concepts. Therefore, I have no problem with all those who tear a given political regime’s policies
into pieces. As we opposed Indira Gandhi or Rajiv Gandhi then, there must not be any restriction whatsoever on anybody opposing present Prime Minister Narendra Modi or his government’s policies or acts of omission and commission.
However, things become different when the criticisms degenerate and turn anti-national to the extent of challenging the very core of our nationhood. I strongly believe, therefore, that freedom of expression can never become absolute. I disagree here with my dear friend N R Mohanty, a former JNUSU President, who has given example of the United States, where the right is absolute. He has quoted some famous judgment of the US Supreme Court in this regard. My answer to him on this is that no country’s judiciary operates in a vacuum; its decisions are often shaped by the prevailing conditions in the country. The US Supreme Court judgment on the importance of the First Amendment to the constitution was made before the 9/11 attack on the US. No wonder why today nobody in America is talking of absolute rights.
In fact, if you hold a protest sign on the steps of the US Supreme Court building, you will be arrested, fined, and jailed. Kids who talk in a chat group or in email can be arrested, tried, convicted, and jailed, as happened not long ago to teens in Virginia and other states. Every US Administration routinely demands secrecy, puts embarrassing documents out of the public eye, and can prosecute anyone who violates its self-serving “security net.” The US military has active total control of the speech of its members on active service, and near-total control of veterans who know secrets. Even otherwise, free speech can put you behind bars if it is “fighting speech.” You can be prosecuted and jailed for provoking someone. Free speech can end in a jail cell if it can be called “inciting to riot.” It can end in a cell if it is called “reckless endangerment.”
The above examples only confirm my point that freedom of expression cannot be absolute. The problem arises when our sedition or security laws are selectively applied. And that gives ammunition to those who say, in the context of the JNU-crisis, why poor students of the JNU should be prosecuted when day in and day out separatists in the Kashmir valley talk of separation. But this can be answered easily. Perhaps it is not wellknown that neither the British-made anti-Sedition laws nor the National Security Act that was promulgated in 1980 by the then Indira Gandhi government applies to the state of Jammu and Kashmir under Article 370 of the Indian Constitution.
However, the real problem of selective application of laws against the anti-nationals does not end here. Take here the case of helplessness of the Modi regime. With police under its control in Delhi, JNU students are being taken to task, but those committing the same crime in the Jadavpur University in West Bengal are roaming free. And what is more important, the Modi government has been totally defensive on the Central University in Hyderabad, where Rohith Vemula, who unfortunately committed suicide, had indulged in the same anti-national activities by agitating also for the right of self determination in Kashmir and against the death-sentence of a person declared terrorist by none other than the Supreme Court of India. Here, Rohith being anti-national paled before his identity of being a “Dalith”. No wonder why in the case of the arrested JNUSU President, politicians, and they include from Modi’s own Bharatiya Janata Party(BJP), are talking of sparing him, even if he is guilty, just because he is a “Bhumihar”(caste) and from Bihar.
In other words, narrow political considerations (in this case identity politics) matter in India today more than its laws. Therefore, I am not concentrating more on the legal aspect of the JNU crisis – it will be taken care by the judiciary; those arrested will be set free if charges against them do not hold legally. But, the crisis will not end with the legal solution, because it has taken already a political shape. Critics of Modi will overblow it as an instance of his fascism and those from the ruling party will utilise it as a great opportunity of projecting Modi’s nationalist credentials.
What I am really interested in is finding the truth behind this crisis in JNU whether anti-India forces have infiltrated the student-bodies in the country to challenge our internal stability successfully. After all, it is wellknown that there is a strong nexus between the Maoists and ISI-funded Jihadis (most of whom happen to be the separatists). And now there are reports that some students believing in Maoism had brought outsiders into the JNU campus to raise slogans for the liberation of Kashmir. I also ponder over the JNU-incident whether it was carefully stage-managed to foil any prospect of Jammu and Kashmir, now under Governor’s rule, having an elected government by reviving the alliance between the People’s Democratic Party and the BJP.
That truth will come out only through thorough investigations. So let us not demonise Delhi Police or other security-agencies. For me the stability of India as a nation is more important than enjoying some absolute rights. Rights flow from a nation; rights do not make a nation.
By Prakash Nanda