JNU Crisis: Commentary On Free Speech, Kanahiya Kumar And Sedition

17/02/2016 3:10 PM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:26 AM IST
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An Indian student holds a placard demanding the release of student leader Kanhaiya Kumar during a protest at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, India, Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2016. Students, journalists and teachers protested in the Indian capital Tuesday after a student union leader's arrest and subsequent violence by Hindu nationalists. The uproar has once again sparked allegations that Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party are displaying intolerance and cracking down on political dissent in the name of patriotism. (AP Photo /Tsering Topgyal)

NEW DELHI -- The Jawharlal Nehru University crisis has sparked debate on the red line for free speech in India, and at what point does a student voicing dissent become a "traitor." The nation is deliberating whether praising a terrorist is covered by free speech, whether such an act invites a charge of sedition, who has a monopoly over nationalism and patriotism, and who is an "anti-national."

The more immediate threat is to Kanhaiya Kumar, a student from Bihar, who was arrested on charges of sedition for a speech which didn't have any "anti-national" material. His arrest points to the irresponsibility of the Delhi police and the immaturity of the Modi government.

HuffPost India has put together leading commentary from national dailies, as well as our own publication, on these developments playing out in the national capital.

Writing in The Indian Express, columnist Pratap Banu Mehta bashes the "rabidly malign and politically incompetent" government for committing an "act of tyranny" by arresting Kumar and cracking down on political dissent at JNU.

"Some of the students may have been deeply misguided in the beliefs they hold. But a university is the space to debate them: yes, even the hanging of Afzal Guru. But nothing they said amounts to a definition of illegality that should befit a liberal democracy. As a society, we are also losing sight of a basic distinction: the threshold of justification required for using the coercive power of the state is not satisfied merely because someone disagrees," Mehta wrote.

In his post in The Telegraph, Mukul Kesavan describes Kumar's arrest as the "near-lunatic overreaction" which is rooted "in a paranoid style of nationalism."

"The BJP's response to radical student activism, whether it is Rohith Vemula in Hyderabad or Kanhaiya Kumar in JNU, is uncannily like the fearful, vengeful reaction of Krishna's wicked uncle. The Krishna story shows us two ways of dealing with unbiddable youth: the love and nurture supplied by his foster mother on the one hand and the fearsome, but ultimately futile, use of power by his uncle on the other.

In our story, Kanhaiya's mother, Meena Devi, who worked her fingers to the bone to give her son an education that she and her husband didn't have, is obviously Yashoda. The question we should all ask is why are so many in the BJP auditioning for the role of Kansa?," Kesavan wrote.

Writing in Hindustan Times, Sushil Aaron begins his post by quoting a passage from historian Barbara W. Tuchman's book, The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam: “Why do holders of high office so often act contrary to the way reason points and enlightened self-interest suggests? Why does intelligent mental process seem so often not to function?”

Kumar's arrest reveals that the Modi government is incapable of thinking about its own interest, let alone the nation, wrote Aaron.

"It isn’t easy to bully JNU -- it is not Kashmir, for example, where the State can aim to end student activism and impose surveillance without too many noticing or objecting. The right-wing pro-BJP army on Twitter, which has a little idea about how social science works and relentlessly lampoons JNU as a place for left-wing loonies, underestimates the university’s influence and reach," he wrote.

Writing in The Indian Express, eminent jurist Fali S Nariman explained that hooliganism, expressions of gate, and contempt of government is not sedition. Instead, Section 124 A of the Indian Penal Code is only invoked if f words, spoken or written, are accompanied by disorder and violence and/ or incitement to disorder and violence.

"When a person is dubbed “anti-Indian”, it is distasteful to India’s citizenry, but then to be “anti-Indian” is not a criminal offence, and it is definitely not “sedition”. (It only means that you are a freak, and that it is high time to have your head examined!)," he wrote.

Writing in The Economic Times, Swaminathan Aiyar described “anti nationalism” as an “empty abuse,” and free society are those which allow their students to espouse extreme position.

"Oxford University is very establishment. But in 1933, the Oxford Union held a famous debate on the motion, ‘This house will in no circumstances fight for its King and country.’ The Union voted for the motion by 275 votes to 153. This ‘Oxford Pledge’ was later adopted by students at the universities of Manchester and Glasgow. This sent shock waves through Britain. The students were denounced as morons, cowards, anti-nationals and communist sympathisers. But none dreamed of arresting the students for sedition,” he wrote.

Writing in HuffPost India, Sandip Roy likened the Modi government to a "bull in a china shop," while making the argument that this whole ruckus isn't over Kumar or Guru, but rather about 'taming JNU and showing upstart students that Big Brother is not just watching, Big Brother can throw you into lock-up."

"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?," he wrote.

Writing in HuffPost India, Shivam Vij pointed out that the British regularly used sedition against Indian freedom fighters, and Mahatma Gandhi once told a British judge that “sedition was the highest moral duty of a citizen."

Like Nariman, Vij pointed out that Kumar won't be found guilty because India's sedition law comes with caveat of violence or direct incitement to violence. "The 'logic of the situation' is nothing but the need to suppress political dissent, silence voices we don’t want heard," he wrote.

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