The ongoing crackdown at the Jawaharlal Nehru University and the subsequent events in New Delhi and around the country have bared several interlinked fault lines that have plagued the Indian republic. Here are some.
1. Freedom of speech and expression
Some people shouted anti-India slogans at an Afzal Guru commemoration at JNU. The slogans included calls for the destruction of India. What are the limits of tolerance of the Indian republic to such slogans? Will these be resolved in a court of law or by mob consensus on what constitutes "acceptable speech"? This applies not only to JNU, but has implications for other creative pursuits like books, films and theatre.
This [conflagration] is not about Afzal Guru per se, but about who is for and who is against the "nation".
Another central fault line which has polarized public opinion. Even neutral people were offended by the anti-India slogans. On the other hand the government's disproportionate response has angered a lot of people, who otherwise would not care about a fringe group of kids shouting anti-India slogans. The concept of the "Indian Nation" -- defined as a strong state with borders and a "visible" population -- resonates powerfully with one set of people for whom anything outside this purview smacks of anti-national and seditious behaviour. The other set of people has a broader definition of the nation and a concern for the "invisible" population in which dissent plays a key role. Both sets claim to love the nation dearly and be more patriotic than the other, which shows the hold of the nation in the discourse.
What is a colonial-era law that was used to imprison Indian freedom fighters doing in the sovereign Indian republic? The establishment cannot do without a law to jail dissenters and other inconvenient busybodies, which is probably why it has not been repealed. However, what is the line where freedom of expression crosses over into sedition? Who defines and polices that line? More than 8000 cases of sedition were filed against people protesting the Kudankulam nuclear power plant! Tamil folk singer Kovan was charged with sedition for criticizing Jayalalithaa. Were all these people waging war against India?
Lest we forget, the root cause was Kashmir, one of the most contentious topics in India. Right wingers view it primarily as a piece of territory that needs to be defended at all costs, while some on the left are more concerned about the human suffering. Discussion about Kashmir is tricky and is avoided in polite company. Similarly, there are other territories in India which are wracked by separatist violence, some parts of the Northeast for instance. How will the Republic resolve these?
5. Who is a terrorist?
The commemoration of Afzal Guru at JNU was the event that lit the spark. Whether he actually had a role in the Parliament attacks or was someone who was framed and executed to satisfy the public conscience, the battle lines around Guru are sharply etched. This is not about Afzal Guru per se, but about who is for and who is against the "nation".
People on both sides of the divide have been expressing their opinion forcefully on Facebook and Twitter. Women who #standwithjnu have been getting rape threats.
6. Role of universities
In the wake of the JNU crackdown the role of the university has come into focus. Traditionally, the university has been seen as a space for fostering critical ideas and encouraging dissenting thoughts. JNU has a vibrant campus life which has created a "public sphere" that questions everybody and everything. A large section now wants universities to be aligned to a more mainstream though process, those that do not want JNU to be shut down outright, that is. The question is, what kind of universities do we want?
7. Subsidizing education
Messages circulating on social media say taxpayer money is being wasted subsidizing "anti-national" education of the kind taught in JNU. An opinion piece by ex-Infosys honcho Mohandas Pai suggests that campus politics shouldn't be funded by taxpayer money, which is meant exclusively for education. This issue again goes back to what kind of universities we want: depoliticized or promoting an engagement with society? JNU is probably the only university in India where politics is largely free from money and muscle power. Students fighting the JNU elections have to convince voters through the strength of their arguments and have to be well read about politics, economics and social issues. Surely we need more of that in our national politics!
8. Access to the university
JNU had a policy that favoured students from deprived backgrounds in the admission process. A poor student from a remote part of the country has a chance of accessing the same education as a privileged student from St Stephen's. The campus is a mix of people from across the class, caste and income spectrum. Kanhaiya Kumar, the president of the students union against whom a sedition case has been filed, is the son of an anganwadi worker from Bihar. Do we want more such universities or do we want to shut down the few that do exist?
9. Role of the media
Some newspapers and digital dailies have been supportive of the JNU students while others have been accused of wild sensationalism. The Telegraph's headlines have been making news for a stance critical of the government while Arnab Goswami has come under withering fire for his jingoistic coverage that has painted JNU as a terrorist breeding centre. Some liberals are angry with the media. But making generalizations about the media is as dangerous as making generalizations about JNU based on the slogans of a few.
Here is the irony of the situation: the assaulters, "nationalist" to the core, feel the media is liberal while the liberals feel the media is "nationalistic".
10. Press freedom
Journalists were assaulted while covering court proceedings related to the sedition charges against Kanhaiya. Here is the irony of the situation: the assaulters, "nationalist" to the core, feel the media is liberal while the liberals feel the media is "nationalistic". What is the role of the press when it comes to covering... freedom of speech?
11. Role of social media
Social media is on fire. People on both sides of the divide have been expressing their opinion forcefully on Facebook and Twitter. Women who #standwithjnu have been getting rape threats. Even I've had a few arguments with family members on Facebook and our family WhatsApp group.
12. Rent-a-crowd thugs
Lawyers, or at least people dressed in lawyers clothing, assaulted students and journalists in the Patiala House court with impunity. This is unprecedented. Rent-a-crowd goon squads have a special place in the Indian political imagination, but for this to happen in the heart of the capital with the police and judges looking on is unheard of.
13. Police reforms
The police did nothing to stop the 'lawyers' beating people up. They have also been accused of excessive zeal in booking students under the sedition law. Police reforms as an issue has been discussed and debated endlessly, but this incident shows why questions of independence, accountability and transparency of the police needs to be tackled urgently.
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