JNU Row: When dissent becomes sedition?

    A group of irate lawyers at Patiala House Court. Their violent conduct is a matter of investigation

    What is the issue at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in New Delhi? A radical left-wing student group as vocal and abusive as RSS/Parivar organized a function to discuss the ‘judicial murder of’ of Afzal Guru as they see it. The JNUSU President Kanhaiya Kumar was not at the function and had nothing to do with it.Yet he was arrested and charged with Sedition under the Indian Penal Code 124A. His speech to the students did not contain any anti-national sentiment, but rather only an affirmation of his faith in the constitution.

    A group of irate lawyers at Patiala House Court. Their violent conduct is a matter of investigation
    A group of irate lawyers at Patiala House Court. Their violent conduct is a matter of investigation

    This is the latest in a series of incidents where the Modi Government has determined to stifle dissent, shutting down debates, and muzzling the freedom of expression in the country, all in the name of nationalism. It is happening on the heels of the suicide death of RohithVemula, who was ostracized by right-wing elements for demanding his rights to be heard.

    ‘Sedition’ is a colonial era rule that was used to suppress the voice of the Indian people, who were demanding freedom and dignity from the British Empire. Today, the BJP government is using the same old arcane law – which should not have any place in a 21st-century democracy – to target individuals and institutions that are perceived to be non-conformist. Although the Indian law of sedition is different from the British law, law enforcement agencies have always used it against artists, public men and intellectuals for criticizing the Government.

    In the case of Kedarnath Singh vs State of Bihar (1962), a five-judge bench of the Supreme Court ruled that a charge of sedition would only apply if there were “an incitement to violence or public disorder”.There is no evidence to indicate that Kanhaiya Kumar raised slogans in favor of Pakistan, and against India.However, the heavy-handedness of the authorities on the campus and the speed in which the sedition charges were slapped on him clearly indicate that the government will not tolerate any dissent.

    JNU has long been a target of right-wing Hindu activists, who see the Institution as a laboratory of liberal and democratic thought process. It has been crucial in producing some of the finest minds in India who have become great proponents of freedom and liberty. It should be noted that while Prime Minister NarendraModiwas the Chief Minister of Gujarat, he branded JNU as a laboratory for secularists, which needed to be shut down.

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    There is a certain pattern in how the HRD ministry, headed by Smithi Irani is dealing with institutions of higher learning. There was a growing acrimony with the students in FTII Pune, on the appointment of RSS ideologues to positions of power. Then, Ambedkar Periyar Study circle in IIT Madras was de-recognized. Then came the tragic suicide of Rohith Vemula, who was suspended after the complaints made by ABVP leaders to the HRD Ministry.

    Any independent observer can view a common pattern that is the ABVP, the student wing of BJP, has become a tool in the hands of the HRD ministry to advance the saffron agenda of the RSS across campuses, and around the country. Whenever they complain about political rivals, the ministry swoops in and takes actions on their behalf against the students who advocate academic freedom without any interference from the ruling class.

    University campuses ought to be a place where young minds can freely express their views, formulate their opinions, and create a forum where competing ideas and ideologies can germinate. A campus without vibrant intellectual discourse will fail in cultivating creative minds that are essential in coping with the challenges of globalizations and pressures of modernity.

    The effort to penalize parties who are critical of the Government or some of its regressive policies as ‘anti-national’ is an advancing of an agenda that mirrors fascism. The German historian Arthur Rosenberg, in his book, Fascism and Mass movement, refers to two conditions as prefiguring the rise of fascism: the rise of right-wing nationalism and an active connivance between the state and storm troopers. Let us hope that what we have witnessed in University of Hyderabad and JNU are not early indications of such an evolution.

    G. Sampath in a recent column described how according to the nationalist taxonomy of the SanghParivar, Adivasis in central India, Dalit students, Left Intellectuals, Human Rights activists, a certain Religious Minority, anti-nuclear activists, beef eaters, non-haters of Pakistan, inter-religious couples, homosexuals and labor activists are  all anti-nationals. He further stated that if what happened at the Patiala House in New Delhi is taken into account, journalists and anyone dressed like JNU students could also be lumped together in that category.

    What is more anti-national than justifying the murder of Mahatma Gandhi, the father of the nation or erecting a statue of NathuramGodse who had assassinated him? The Governmental hypocrisy was quite evident when Swami Omji from Hindu Mahasabha said the following “We killed Mahatma Gandhi. In the future, we will try to convince anti-nationals like Kejriwal. If he doesn’t listen, we will shoot him and kill him”. Doesn’t his statement constitute inciting violence or public disorder? Why then is the Government not responding to a charge of ‘sedition’ in these cases?

    Under Modi’s tenure in Gujarat, journalists were targeted for sedition charges as well as harassment and denial of entry into the State Assembly. In 2006, Modi’s administration brought sedition charges against the Gujarati-language daily editor, ManojShinde, for his criticism of Modi’s mishandling of a flood. Sedition and treason charges were also brought against Times of India editor, Bharat Desai and crime reporter PrashantDayal along with photographer Gautam Mehta at Gujarat Samachar due to an investigative series on crime questioning high-ranking police officers.

    If these developments continue unabated, it will constitute a growing threat to India’s democracy, a pluralistic framework which was preserved for the last six decades, under the successive Congress-led governments. According to PratapBanuMehta of Center for Policy research, ‘we are living under a government that is using nationalism to crush constitutional patriotism, legal tyranny to crush dissent, political power to settle petty scores and administrative power to destroy institutions”.

    Addressing the Editors Guild of India, the Nobel Laureate AmartyaSen recently said the following: “we should not tolerate the intolerance that undermines our democracy that impoverishes the lives of many Indians, and facilitates a culture of impunity of tormentors”. I hope the nation is listening!

    George Abraham
    George Abraham


    (The author is a former Chief Technology Officer of the United Nations. He can be reached at gta777@gmail.com)

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