Listen to the loud silence of the Bharatiya Janata Party while the Congress party is getting an earful from the media and public for slapping sedition charges in Karnataka against Amnesty International India. There is nary a squeak from the BJP.
In fact, the BJP must be delighted that the Congress government in the state, led by Chief Minister Siddaramaiah, booked Amnesty International India for sedition after it hosted an event in Bengaluru to discuss human rights violations in Kashmir. The BJP's student wing, Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), had made a huge fuss about the event, and the Karnataka police filed a first information report based on its complaint that anti-India slogans were raised at the venue.
Had the two parties not been political rivals, they could high-fived each other for excellent team work. "The government won't remain quiet on such issues, we will take action," said Siddaramaiah.
The actions of the Siddaramaiah government show that the Congress isn't all that different from the BJP when it comes to dealing with dissent in troubled times, which is when our freedoms are truly tested. This also makes it harder for the Grand Old Party to mouth pieties the next time that the BJP government cracks down on civil liberties.
For the Opposition to lose its authority to, well, oppose, is never a good thing. But it is especially dangerous now, when the ABVP and other right-groups are making a concerted effort to silence those who they claim are unpatriotic, and shutter events and publications that, according to them, show India in a bad light. Just last week, they managed to stop the circulation of Pondicherry Central University's Student Council magazine Widerstandfor its "anti-national" material.
Some might shrug and say that it is naive to criticise the Congress Party of opportunism when it is practically the norm for all political parties to change positions depending on whether they are in or out of power. We have to look no further than the Modi government's U-turns over the past two years.
Unfortunately for the Congress, its hypocrisy in this instance stands out in sharp relief because it follows just months after the terrific row it raised over the Modi government slapping sedition charges against students of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) for raising anti national slogans.
In both cases, slogans against India were raised at events that the ABVP members were protesting against, and in both cases those slapped with sedition charges claimed that they were not the ones raising slogans. The JNU event was organised to commemorate Mohammad Afzal, who was hanged after being found guilty of plotting the terrorist attack on the Indian parliament in 2001. The Amnesty International India event was organised in Bengaluru to highlight human rights violations in Kashmir at a time when the Indian government is struggling to control the outbreak of violent protests in the Valley.
When the BJP was in the doghouse over the JNU row, Congress Party Vice President Rahul Gandhi dashed off to the university campus in a show of solidarity with Kanhaiya Kumar and other students charged with sedition. The Congress lawmaker from Madhya Pradesh, Jyotiraditya Scindia, told the Lok Sabha at the time that "using words did not amount to sedition."
"So then I ask you, why did the Delhi police make Kanhaiya Kumar an accused in the sedition case. It is because Kanhaiya did not agree with RSS ideology," Scindia had said. "Who will teach us the meaning of nationalism, there can be a difference between your thinking and our thinking."
After the Amnesty International India episode, the "thinking" of both parties doesn't seem that different. The next time that the Congress party waxes indignant, the BJP government is sure to ask why Karnataka police charged Amnesty International with sedition, and why the ruling Congress party leadership did not condemn it.
Part of the problem is that the Congress itself does not know how far it is willing to go to protect free speech. That is why it had absolutely no response, except to create a ruckus, when BJP lawmaker Anurag Thakur asked why Gandhi had made a trip to the JNU campus to stand with students who had organised an event to commemorate someone held guilty of terrorism and where slogans calling for the destruction of India had been raised.
Kanhaiya Kumar might not have raised the slogans but slogans had been raised at the JNU event without any objection from those present, including Kumar. In response to Thakur's query, Gandhi did not say that while he may not agree with the students, he supported their right to raise slogans calling for the destruction of India, as long as it was only words. Which is why, in light of the Bengaluru police's actions, his visit to the JNU campus seems more and more like a spot of political opportunism.
All of which only makes the Congress Party look weak and indecisive. Even now, the party's high command has chosen to distance itself from the actions of the party in Karnataka, rather than make clear its displeasure.
Instead, senior Congress Party leader Jairam Ramesh has tried to make a facile distinction between the two events, saying that while one was organised on a university campus by students, the other was organised by human rights activists.
Assuming that Gandhi stood by the JNU students because raising slogans does not constitute sedition under Indian law, why is he not standing in solidarity with the human rights activists. The law of the land makes no distinction between students and activists.
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