‘Tactical diversion of public attention’

Print edition : March 18, 2016

Anand Sharma. Photo: PTI

Interview with Anand Sharma, Deputy Leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha.

The incidents on the Jawaharlal Nehru University campus and the subsequent protests by students compelled the Congress leadership to address the issue. The Congress Working Committee (CWC) decided to take up what it described as the “undermining of democratic norms” amid other issues in the Budget session of Parliament. Senior leader Anand Sharma spoke to Frontline on why his party felt that these issues needed to be raised. Excerpts from the interview:

The Congress vice-president and you visited the JNU campus. What do you make of the events in JNU?

On JNU, I don’t think the government and the administration have handled it with maturity and restraint. It is a classic case of disproportionate response to something that could have been easily addressed by the law-enforcement agencies and the university authorities in case there was a violation of the law of the land. Any act or utterance that can be termed as anti-national and injurious to peace, stability and the unity, integrity of India, is non-negotiable. Deterrent action has to be taken. But as the events have unfolded, it is clear that the JNUSU elected president, Kanhaiya, has not done anything or at least cannot be accused of an act that can be described as against the interests of the country. What is shameful is that a doctored video has reportedly appeared. Who is behind this? Those who are behind it are anti-national and trying to foment and create trouble in furtherance of some agenda.

Without getting into the details of whether there was a justification in loosely slapping sedition charges, which is the duty of the courts to see, campuses are incubators of ideas where free discussions and debates take place. A space has to be created even in liberal democracies to hear dissenting voices. We are the largest democracy on the planet. There cannot be an imposition of the code of the ruling establishment or its ideology on young minds of impressionable age. That would be resisted. Those who are the ideological descendants of the non-participants of the Indian freedom movement and [who are] shaping what we see today of the very idea of India given by Gandhi and Nehru cannot be given the freedom or luxury to define Indian nationalism and also distribute certificates [as to] who is a national or who is not. I have not given them that right as an Indian citizen. The Prime Minister has to step in to see that campuses do not get disrupted by design due to the actions of the government and the interference of the Ministry which results in the alienation of the younger generation. These are larger issues.

There are people who have committed the most heinous of crimes who get the right to fair trial. Even Indira Gandhi’s assassins got a trial. Mahatma Gandhi’s assassin, whose action led to the banning of the RSS and the Hindu Mahasabha, was given a trial. The one responsible for attacking the Indian Parliament, Afzal Guru, was given a trial. It is a separate issue where people have strong opinions on the death penalty. Many eminent citizens of India had even then petitioned and appealed to the President. Are we going to disown them as anti-nationals? The BJP goes to bed with the PDP [People’s Democratic Party] and, in naked political opportunism, forms a government. The PDP has a view on all these issues, but now they cannot say that some fringe element made a statement.

Is this something that is unprecedented? Is there an atmosphere of insecurity even among the political class? Is it a matter of concern that people are being segmented into categories like this—national and anti-national?

We have never seen anything like this. It is a strategic and tactical diversion of public attention from the disastrous performance of this government and non-fulfilment of promises made to the youth and then create divisions when one has major States going in for elections, West Bengal, Assam and Kerala, [all of] which have a sizeable population of Muslims. We want the truth to come out. A violation of law is a violation of law. Those who attacked people in courts are known. We went to JNU at the invitation of the JNUTA. There was nothing said or done that could have been objected to by anyone or that was anti-national. I was attacked. FIRs [first information reports] were registered but there was no action. When it becomes state-sponsored hooliganism, then it becomes a threat to democracy.

One cannot brand campuses as anti-national. It is strange that anyone who disagrees with them is anti-national. And one should realise that when they won this tsunami of a mandate, 69 per cent did not vote for them. Are all those who rejected them anti-national?

The Prime Minister said recently that the opposition was on a vilification campaign and was not allowing the government to work.

There is no vilification campaign. He does not want the opposition to raise issues. I am not only talking about JNU. What happened in Hyderabad or FTII, Pune, or [the] IIT [in] Chennai. He doesn’t want the opposition to raise issues. The P.M. has mastered the art of doublespeak and diversion. He is not a victim of any conspiracy, he is a part of a larger conspiracy to vilify the Congress and its leadership.

Two of their people made statements against the Congress vice-president. There are MLAs who threatened violence against a senior leader of the Congress. Another of their partymen made a statement against D. Raja’s daughter. Can this be accepted?

The CWC has resolved that these issues will be raised. But the government is also apprehensive that this session might be a washout.

We have made it clear that we are going to raise these issues. They must come up and be debated. Fifty-nine government Bills have been passed by the Rajya Sabha. If today this government is happy the insurance Bill was passed in 2015, which could not be [done] for seven long years, they should be grateful to the principal opposition. The historic constitutional amendment on the Land Boundary Agreement with Bangladesh was passed; the BJP called it anti-national when they were in the opposition. Besides being hypocrites, they have a selective memory. On GST, we say that we are the authors and we are in favour of a GST that brings down the costs, for both the producer and the consumer. Parliament must function as it gives the opposition some space to articulate its views and concerns.

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