Charges of sedition and labels of being anti-national are being freely used to muzzle dissent. But will it pay political dividends?
Battles are a continuum in politics. Not all are electoral battles, but they are certainly aimed at electoral gains. The developments in India’s prestigious university in New Delhi, so soon after the January clash in another university in southern India, are not ordinary anymore.
They have become critical for the country’s democracy as sharp battle lines are being drawn between those who are committed to the freedom of thought and those who believe that they alone have the right to determine the thought process.
The genesis of the trouble at the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), a central university like the University of Hyderabad in the southern city, does not lie necessarily in the organisation of a meeting last week. The meeting was meant to commemorate the hanging of Afzal Guru, a convict involved in the attack on the heart of Indian democracy, the parliament itself.
After the usual fracas that normally takes place in any university, the administration decided to act on the demand of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the student wing of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to ban the meeting since, the parishad believed, it was for questionable purposes.
The fight over physical space to conduct a meeting to express dissent over the 2001 case and the subsequent capital punishment in 2013, has now led to a strange situation. The Federal Home Minister, Mr Rajnath Singh, has taken it as the most important assignment that needs him to be hands-on. And, he emulated what the junior minister, Bandaru Dattatreya, did in Hyderabad. He called the police to initiate action against ‘anti-national’ elements on the campus.
Dattetreya’s initiative led to the suspension of research scholars belonging to the Ambedkar Students Association (ASA) and became a raging controversy when Rohit Vemula committed suicide.
The issue led to the BJP-led federal government being painted as anti-Dalit. But, the Home Minister’s direction acquired a different connotation because during the clash between the ABVP and the Leftist students’ organisations, some persons are reported to have shouted anti-India slogans in support of a separate Kashmir - over which India and Pakistan have fought three wars and the latter continues to wage a relentless proxy war of terror.
While most people do not deny such sloganeering, nobody knows who shouted such incendiary slogans. But, the Delhi police went and arrested the president of the JNU Students Union, Kanhaiya Kumar, who hails from the Communist Party of India’s student wing, the All India Students Federation (AISF).
Kanhaiya’s alleged crime was that he organised the event when, in fact, he had gone there to resolve the dispute between students over space. When somebody in the crowd shouted anti-India slogans, he was charged with, of all things, sedition. Sedition, as a section in the Indian Penal Code (IPC), is a charge that has been redefined by the Supreme Court.
It has categorically stated that unless words uttered [in speech or slogans] are used to incite violent action, there is no offence. Clearly the police was following political instructions. Having said that, it must be made unequivocally clear that anti-national slogans must not be tolerated.
Such slogans have been heard in the past and history will tell you that the nation has, as always, shown the resilience to withstand and face up to such eventualities and will do so in the future as well. But, the interesting aspect of the recent developments has been that the ‘anti-national’ elements seem to be getting noticed more now than ever before. And, it seems to be getting noticed only after the honeymoon period of the ruling party, headed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has ended.
The picture that is now emerging is that the ruling party and its affiliates have launched a war against not only any kind of dissent but are also making an investment for the future. By labelling those who are showing dissent as ‘anti-national’, the ruling party affiliates are clearly targeting those who have always believed in free exchange of views, however diverse they may be.
The effort to curb dissent seems to have begun with the Periyar Study Circle at the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras, the Hyderabad Central University and other universities. There is little surprise that JNU should be the target because it is the heartland, so to speak, of views which promote social justice, equality and freedom, all enshrined in the country’s Constitution. It would be improper for such thinking to be generalised under the ‘Leftist’ category.
Suffice it to say that such an environment is opposed to the imposition of a single view, something that is anathema to the ruling party’s ideology. In the long run, it does help in curbing the tendency among writers and others to return awards on issues that curb the freedom to eat whatever people want or express opinion freely.
There are also other advantages. Such a battle of labelling, being fought on the campuses, also helps in curbing the disenchantment of the middle classes and others, who had been bowled over by the persona of Modi in 2014 elections, with the performance of the government. It also helps in promoting its brand of nationalism by which the brains of the future generation at the universities can be protected from free thinking.
The challenge, therefore, is not to the ruling party and its overzealous affiliates. It is, in fact, to the anti-BJP forces. More so to the student and youth wings of the two Communist parties. These organisations were, indeed, powerful in several parts of the country, once upon a time.
The JNU has been a rare exception. The question, therefore, is how the remnants of these organisations form a coalition with independent- minded, liberal organisations and people to fight this challenge to free thinking. In the long run, on this battle will depend the electoral gains that would accrue to the various political parties.
Tragedy at Siachen
Indian soldiers have one of the toughest assignments in the world. That of guarding the Siachen glacier, the highest battlefield in the world at 22,000 feet. The enemy is not only the Pakistani on the other side of the Actual Ground Position Line, as it is called, but something people love to see, the snow.
The situation here is such that the snow has become a four-letter word for those who serve at this post. And, when the avalanche happened and the country lost a score of its soldiers, there was one among them who touched the hearts of a billion and more. Lance Naik (equivalent of a Corporal) Hanumanthappa Koppad survived after an avalanche for six days under -40°C temperature before being airlifted to the national capital for treatment. Unfortunately, Koppad did not survive despite the best treatment at the Delhi army hospital.
In fact, his condition was constantly monitored by the top brass of the Indian armed forces. But, the most amazing aspect was the unusually huge number of mourners who thronged to his village near Hubballi in the southern state of Karnataka.
Crowd estimates are being put at close to two hundred thousand people. Sometimes, it is said, in death some people can inspire a generation. It appears Koppad is one of those. A generation of children will remember the tearful tribute that was paid to a soldier who came from the humblest of backgrounds. Koppad deserves a salute for this.
This is a case of another conflict. This time it is more traditional: Man Vs animal. A leopard was sighted on the CCTV of a school in Bangalore on a Sunday morning. It was fortunate in more ways than one that it was not sighted on a working day when the school would have been full of children.
Fortunately, the cameras fixed after an infamous past incident, helped the police and forest officials in tackling the issue before the children could walk into the school on Monday morning. Unfortunately, the leopard got rattled by the presence of the large crowd and went berserk injuring six persons, including a wildlife scientist.
The injured were lucky because the leopard was short of sight in one eye and did not have enough teeth. In any case, the leopard was captured and put away in a cage in the Bannerghatta biological park. And, then began the rumour mongering of people having sighted leopards in the area, a few kilometres away from the school.
As the poor in the nearby area lived in fear, the education department decided to shut down 129 schools until the forest and police departments found the elusive leopard or leopards if the ‘eye witnesses’ were to be believed. But, the fact is that the city has grown to abut forest areas where leopards have been living happily from time immemorial. Now, man has gone closer to their area. Not just that, man also tries to scare away the leopard.
Out of fear, the animal runs into the school only to get captured. But, man does not know that the leopard is shy of human beings. Neither did the education department know this until its shut-down order created panic among parents and children in the entire area.
Finally, order was restored and schools re-opened after a couple of days of holidays but not before a terse message from the forest department. That man needed to adapt to the animal because man is encroaching into leopard country!