From Ishrat To Kanhaiya, We Are Getting Distracted By The Wrong Questions

02/03/2016 12:55 PM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:26 AM IST
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Back in 2013, NDTV CEO Vikram Chandra tweeted:

"Was Ishrat a terrorist? And does it matter whether she was or wasn’t? Should it affect our approach to a fake encounter?"

Now with the latest accusations hurled by senior bureaucrats alleging a cover-up and affidavit-fixing at the highest levels, the Ishrat Jahan case is back to haunt the Congress High Command. There could be a probe as to who changed the affidavit and why. As there should.

But chances are, in the upcoming political game of gotcha, whether the encounter was fake or not will play second fiddle to whether Ishrat Jahan was an L-e-T operative or not and whether then Home Minister P Chidambaram changed the affidavit or not. Those are very important questions but it does not mean the original question about fake encounters is an unimportant one.

But when patriotism and national security come into the picture, we quickly lose track of the principle at stake, as we have seen at JNU.

Do you even know what sedition is, the Delhi High Court has apparently asked the Delhi Police as it heard the bail application of Kanhaiya Kumar.

That is exactly the right question to ask in the case. Do anti-India slogans, however repugnant, amount to sedition?

ishrat jahan

Supporters hold candles in front of a banner bearing the portrait of Ishrat Jahan during a protest in Ahmedabad.

There is obviously also a freedom of expression debate here. Should a university have to tolerate such slogans within its campus? Should such slogans be allowed at all anywhere? But since the government chose to unleash the sedition Brahmastra, it’s the sedition question that trumps the other questions.

Unfortunately as the debate heats up, and charges fly back and forth, the principle at the heart of it all is long lost. Sometimes on both sides. Kumar’s supporters want to establish that no video exists of him shouting these slogans. They want to make the case that Kumar only went there to defuse a confrontation, that the sloganeers were outsiders. That’s an understandable and a perfectly logical line of defence. It basically says the police got the wrong guy, that the student union president is their scapegoat.

Whether Kumar raised those slogans or not, is raising slogans about India’s barbaadi ipso facto an act of sedition?

But it leaves untouched the bigger question. Whether Kumar raised those slogans or not, is raising slogans about India’s barbaadi ipso facto an act of sedition? And when a question like that is not addressed, it remains like a ticking time-bomb waiting to explode on another person in another situation.

Instead of the larger sedition question we end up debating what slogans Kumar shouted or did not shout. How many of the seven videos were tampered with or not. How many of the 17 eye-witnesses belong to the ABVP. The statement against Kumar carefully says “there was gathering of about 15 to 20 students who were raising anti-national slogans. Kumar was also present there.”

That does not mean Kanhaiya raised those slogans. Or it could mean Kanhaiya shouted some of the slogans but not the other. We could argue about whether Kanhaiya objected to such slogans or not. But then is not objecting to anti-India slogans also sedition? This is a slippery slope indeed.

kanhaiya kumar

Umar Khalid.

Meanwhile a professor who taught fellow-student Umar Khalid has written her own tribute to him that has been widely shared on social media. It’s a response to the many ominous stories floated about him – Jaish-e-Mohammed sympathizer, Kashmiri, “traitor” who had just returned from Pakistan. She says Khalid was one of the brightest she has ever taught. He got an A for his M. Phil dissertation on the Hos of Singhbhum.

That’s obviously a way to counter the trial by media and deemed necessary by those who care about him because others are eager to build a different profile of him based on dodgy Internet rumours. But whether Umar Khalid is a bright student or a dull one should be irrelevant to the principle behind this case. The right to raise a slogan and not be charged with sedition should apply to all irrespective of their grades.

All of that makes for high drama with heavy doses of patriotic breast-beating (and even the spectacle of competing privilege motions) but keeps shifting the goalposts ever further away from the principle at issue.

That is what we can lose sight of as the debate wanders into a confusing thicket of Mahisasura festivals, soldiers in Siachen and Smriti Irani’s head. All of that makes for high drama with heavy doses of patriotic breast-beating (and even the spectacle of competing privilege motions) but keeps shifting the goalposts ever further away from the principle at issue. A politician belonging to the ruling party might be caught kicking someone on camera, lawyers claiming allegiance to the ruling party might beat up journalists and Kumar but the Opposition targets the minister for reading "blasphemous" texts about Goddess Durga in Parliament!

kanhaiya kumar

But then politicians tend to have an uneasy self-serving relationship with principles anyway. Trinamool MP Sugata Bose won a lot of applause for his passionate defence of the right to dissent. “It was not the students but the black-coated stormtroopers associated with the ruling party defiled and desecrated the image of mother India,” he said in the Lok Sabha. However, as Rudrangshu Mukherjee rightly points out in an op-ed, Bose too stands on shaky ground when it comes to the principle at stake here.

Not a very long time ago a posse of policemen aided by Trinamul Congress cadre entered the Jadavpur University campus at the dead of night to break up a students’ sit-in; students, including girls, were beaten up. (The TMC member of parliament who spoke so eloquently and admirably in the Lok Sabha the other day to condemn police action in Jawaharlal Nehru University and about the Janus-faced character of nationalism conveniently erased this police action in Jadavpur University perhaps because the university in his own constituency.)

It is human nature to focus on the personality rather than the underlying principle.

It is human nature to focus on the personality rather than the underlying principle. That is why in a rape case we gravitate towards what the victim was wearing, was she at a night club, did she have a drink. What was a mother of two doing in a nightclub that late a minister infamously asked in the Suzette Jordan rape case in Kolkata. As if any of it makes rape more excusable. We can relate to concrete things – people, slogans, festivals, books. The principle is annoyingly abstract. That is why even something as horrendous as the Dadri lynching quickly became about whether it was indeed beef or mutton. A forensic lab tested the meat samples to determine that. But the question should never have been about beef or mutton. The basic principle that was butchered in Dadri was no one deserved to die because of the meat stored in his refrigerator.

But as politicians trade heated charges, with ever increasing fervour, often wrapped in colours of the national flag, it is far easier for it to become all about the principals involved rather than the principle at stake.

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