JNU Sedition Charge: Modi Government Is Acting Like A Bull In A China Shop

12/02/2016 9:43 PM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:26 AM IST
Members of Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the student wing of the ruling Bharatiya Janata party, shout slogans during a protest in front of the India Gate in New Delhi, India, Friday, Feb. 12, 2016. The protest was against a section of Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University students who during a program earlier this week described the execution of 2001 Parliament attack convict Afzal Guru as "judicial killing." (AP Photo/Altaf Qadri)

Make in India week –- A week that will spark a renewed pride in Indian industry by showcasing the potential of design, innovation and sustainability across India’s manufacturing sectors over the next decade.

That’s what the Make in India website describes as its goal.

Just in time for Make in India week, we learn there’s something else we can make in India by the stroke of a pen--sedition.

The arrest of JNU Students' Union president Kanhaiya Kumar on charges of sedition makes for an ominous curtain raiser to the cheery can-do optimism of Make in India, proving that the heavy hand of the state can also unmake in India.

Patriotism might be a virtue but is the lack of patriotism a crime?

This is not about Afzal Guru, whatever one thinks of his trial and execution. This is not even about Kanhaiya Kumar. This is about taming JNU and showing upstart students that Big Brother is not just watching, Big Brother can throw you into lock-up.

Here's what we know happened at JNU. A group of students held an event, apparently not authorized by the university, and allegedly shouted slogans against the government for the hanging of Afzal Guru, convicted in the Indian Parliament attack. The university said it’s initiating disciplinary enquiry to figure out how the event took place. Kanhaiya Kumar says he was not at the protest and does not agree with “extremist elements who spoil the image of JNU”.

From slogan-shouting to sedition?

The government had already sounded the warning bells.

Home Minister Rajnath Singh said “If anyone raises anti-India slogans, tries to raise questions on the country’s integrity, they will not be spared. Strongest possible action will be taken against them.”

Minister of State Kiren Rijiju said “Be it JNU or any other institution, anti-India slogans can never be tolerated.”

HRD Minister Smriti Irani said the nation “can never tolerate any insult to Mother India.”

Patriotism might be a virtue but is the lack of patriotism a crime? Can you, should you, be sent to lock-up for being unpatriotic?

There is a video circulating of students raising the slogans “India go back” and “Bharat ki barbadi tak, jang rahegi, jang rahegi” (Until the downfall of India, the fight continues, the fight continues). It does pose an enormous headache for the vice-chancellor of the university where such slogans are raised. Our freedom of expression laws in India are anyway compromised, liable to be preempted for all kinds of reasons, from protecting communal harmony to the whims of a thin-skinned politician. When Rajnath Singh tweets “If anyone shouts anti-India slogan & challenges nation’s sovereignty & integrity while living in India, they will not be tolerated or spared”, is he basically saying “Mother India” is a line in the stand where freedom of expression comes to a grinding halt? And even if that is so, the question is do we need to immediately roll out the heavy machinery aka the sedition charge? Is there nothing in the university rulebook to deal with what it thinks is unauthorized use of its premises? And does the buck stop with Kanhaiya Kumar just because he is the student union president?

The government just made him (Kanhaiya Kumar) a national figure by choosing to make him the focus of everything it dislikes about the very idea of JNU.

It’s no secret the BJP wants to breach the Left bastion of JNU. When the rumour went around that Dr Subramanian Swamy would be the next vice-chancellor, that caused much anticipatory glee that JNU would finally be brought to its knees. That rumor proved untrue. By going for the sedition charge right away, the government basically risks appearing as acting at the behest of the ABVP students union on campus. As the saying goes, it looks as if the tail is wagging the dog. In effect, it is allowing Kanhaiya Kumar to say “This is an excuse, I defeated the ABVP in student union elections. That is why this is happening.” It's a prelude, he warns, to the installation of a Gajendra Chauhan figure at JNU as well.

Kumar has already made no bones about his fight with the ABVP and RSS and the Sangh fraternity. In a speech (see below) he angrily rejects any certificate in patriotism from those who would take an airport named after Bhagat Singh and rename it in some “Sanghi’s name”. He says categorically to a cheering crowd that he believes in the Indian constitution, just not in the constitution that is taught in Nagpur.

And as far “Bharat ki barbadi” goes, Kumar has his own barbaadi agenda. “Hum barbaad karna chaahtey hain shoshan ki sanskriti ko, jaativaad ki sanskriti ko, manuvaad ki sanskriti ko,” he is seen saying in the video. It’s a sharp speech, fired up and playing to the gallery, delivered without a single stumble. It has biting sarcasm and stock elements that any good politician, and in particular Narendra Modi, will recognize. It features Babasaheb Ambedkar, his own anganwaadi mother and the poor. He categorically denounces those who raised 'Pakistan zindabad' slogans and alleges instead that ABVP slogans call him and his supporters “Communist kutte (dogs), Jihadiyon ki bachhhe (children of jihadis)” and suchlike. The speech is stridently and pointedly against the ABVP, the RSS and “Madam Smriti Irani”. The question is, does that mean Kanhaiya Kumar is also de-facto “anti India”?

This is about taming JNU and showing upstart students that Big Brother is not just watching, Big Brother can throw you into lock-up.

The students may have provoked the national government with their sloganeering, whether or not Kumar was involved in it. They probably knowingly waved the red flag. The government has chosen to react to it like a bull in a china shop. But sedition is a big gun in its arsenal. It should be used with care. By pulling out the big gun in the face of what are ultimately hot-headed slogans, however ugly, now the government risks having jumped the gun. And now it must deal with the backfire. Till yesterday Kanhaiya Kumar was a student leader at JNU. The government just made him a national figure by choosing to make him the focus of everything it dislikes about the very idea of JNU.

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