Leading the debate

Print edition : April 01, 2016

JNUSU president Kanhaiya Kumar with vice-president Shehla Rashid Shora by his side addressing students on the campus on March 7. Photo: Sushil Kumar Verma

Students who left the ABVP citing differences over its handling of the JNU row burning a copy of the ancient legal text Manusmriti, in New Delhi on March 8, despite the university authorities denying them permission. Photo: PTI

JNU students vow to intensify the struggle for their constitutional and democratic right to criticise the government’s anti-people policies.

AMIDST the rhythmic chants of “azadi” that went up from his fellow students, Jawaharlal Nehru University Students Union (JNUSU) president Kanhaiya Kumar made a forceful comeback on the campus on March 3, after he was granted bail three weeks from his arrest on sedition charges. “We demand azadi not from India, but in India,” he said later in a powerful speech delivered in front of 4,000 students at the administrative block of the university. In the speech that has been trending on various Internet-based platforms for the past few days, Kanhaiya launched a scathing attack on the Sangh Parivar and the National Democratic Alliance government for its alleged role in clamping down on all forms of dissent and democratic traditions. Defending the slogans for azadi, which have become controversial in the context of a hyper-nationalist political campaign advanced by the government, Kanhaiya reiterated that these slogans were in fact calls for freedom against authoritarianism, feudalism, patriarchy, Brahminism and poverty.

Polarising tactic

Stressing that the JNU students’ movement and all other people’s movements were voices against the Sangh Parivar’s ideological agenda of forming a Hindu Rashtra, he said that he regarded the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government as political opposition. Pitching the nationalism versus sedition debate as part of a mischievous polarising tactic the government had adopted to deflect attention from the real issues of the people, he said that demanding freedom from the government’s anti-people policies was his constitutional and democratic right and vowed to intensify the struggle under the banner of the JNUSU against this brand of hegemonic politics.

The Delhi Police had filed a case of sedition and criminal conspiracy against Kanhaiya and five other students of JNU for raising “anti-national” slogans on the campus during an event held against capital punishment on February 9. On March 2, the Delhi High Court granted him conditional bail for six months. Two students, Umar Khalid and Anirban Bhattacharya, are still in jail and the other three are being questioned by the police on a regular basis. The bail order has been widely criticised by a large group of liberal lawyers and judges for falling in line with the majoritarian hyper-nationalist rhetoric.

While granting bail to Kanhaiya, Justice Pratibha Rani implicitly assumed, as is evident from the bail order, that students on the campus had indeed participated in anti-national activities. Straying from the norm, she had unforgiving words to say about student politics in the bail order. “A judge usually is supposed to take into account the evidence against the accused, hear both the parties, and then pronounce a decision regarding the bail. However, Kanhaiya’s bail order reads like a treatise on nationalism instead of a legal order,” said a prominent lawyer in the Supreme Court. The bail order, while sermonising on student politics, did not take into account the Delhi Police’s inability to provide any concrete evidence against Kanhaiya in 20 days.

The order says: “As president of Jawaharlal Nehru University Students Union, the petitioner was expected to be responsible and accountable for any anti-national event organised on the campus. Freedom of speech guaranteed to the citizens of this country under the Constitution of India has enough room for every citizen to follow his own ideology or political affiliation within the framework of our Constitution. While dealing with the bail application of the petitioner, it has to be kept in mind by all concerned that they are enjoying this freedom only because our borders are guarded by our armed and paramilitary forces. Our forces are protecting our frontiers in the most difficult terrain in the world, i.e. Siachen Glacier or Rann of Kutch. It is a case of raising anti-national slogans which do have the effect of threatening national integrity.”

It further states that the thoughts reflected in the slogans cannot be protected as fundamental right to speech and expression.

The judge said she considered such tendencies in student politics as an “infection” that needed to be controlled or cured before it became an “epidemic”. The judgment states: “Whenever some infection is spread in a limb, effort is made to cure the same by giving antibiotics orally and if that does not work, by following second line of treatment. Sometimes it may require surgical intervention also. However, if the infection results in infecting the limb to the extent that it becomes gangrene, amputation is the only treatment. To enable him to remain in the mainstream, at present I am inclined to provide conservative method of treatment. Taking into consideration the facts and circumstances, I am inclined to release the petitioner on interim bail for a period of six months.”

Majoritarian rhetoric

Many lawyers and eminent judges are of the opinion that the bail order assumes without any evidence that the slogans were indeed “anti-national” in nature and completely negates the culture of debate and discussion in an academic environment. “Far from being a sentinel on the qui vive in the defence of a citizen’s fundamental rights, the court seems to be imprisoned by a sense of majoritarian rhetoric. The order is only a recognition that the prosecution did not appear to have any material evidence against the accused that appears to have impelled the court to grant bail,” writes the Supreme Court advocate Sanjay Hegde on a news website.

The bail order has been used by the government, which has been receiving flak over its high-handedness in dealing with the students, to defend its actions. Political observers, however, believe that the BJP-led government has used a hyper-nationalist political rhetoric around the JNU case to polarise the electorate on communal lines. JNU students have been highlighting the role of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the student affiliate of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), in precipitating the controversy. However, Kanhaiya has received tremendous support from the academic community and a large section of the intelligentsia. The manner in which the ABVP has been cornered in various campuses across the country has led to dissensions within it too. Three office-bearers of the ABVP resigned from the party, and the ABVP’s JNU unit vice-president, much to the ire of its national leadership, participated in the burning of the Manusmriti, an early Indian text delineating the norms of caste practices. “The ABVP has been trying to rake up one controversy or the other on the campus for the last six months. We have been successfully scuttling its efforts to polarise the student community [and diverting their attention] from the actual issues of students. What is happening now in JNU is a result of the ABVP’s sustained smear campaign against JNU,” said Shehla Rashid, the vice-president of the JNUSU.

Disruptive means

A few incidents in the past six months point to the ABVP’s attempts to hog the limelight in JNU through disruptive means. JNU got sudden public attention when the BJP leader Subramanian Swamy in September 2015 called its teachers and students “naxalites” and demanded that its name be changed to Subhas Chandra Bose University. Then, in November 2015, the RSS’ mouthpiece, Panchajanya, did a cover story on JNU alleging that it was a hub of anti-national activities. Soon, the ABVP unit on the campus began an aggressive campaign against “anti-national activities” on the campus. First, it tried to disrupt the screening of the documentary Caste on the Menu Card, which highlights discriminatory food practices on the basis of caste. It vandalised the venue and resorted to violence alleging that the screening of the film was anti-national in nature.

Similarly, it disrupted the screening of the documentary Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hai, which portrays the Sangh Parivar’s role in fomenting violence in the Muzaffarnagar riots of 2013. Recently, its activists filed a complaint against a JNU faculty member, Burton Cleetus, for hurting religious sentiments. Cleetus says that he and two other wardens, Himanshu and Ashutosh Anand, of the Jhelum hostel in JNU, had tried to avoid a potentially hazardous situation in the hostel by stopping a havan, a Hindu ritual in which fire is worshipped, which was conducted by a few students. Although all the wardens were involved in the decision, the complaint was filed against only Cleetus. Many students say that Cleetus was targeted because he is a Christian.

The series of events that eventually led to the televised broadcasting of the controversial event on February 9 also points to a clear role of the ABVP in planning the crackdown on JNU. In the wake of the sedition case against six students, it has emerged that the JNUSU’s joint secretary, Saurabh Kumar Sharma of the ABVP, had invited Zee News journalists to film the February 9 event. The university’s entry registers, accessed by a few students through the Right to Information Act, show that Zee News journalists entered the campus to visit Saurabh Sharma. The Delhi government, which had sent five controversial videos for examination, in its report states that two of them were found to be doctored. These two videos portray Kanhaiya and a few other students as shouting “Pakistan Zindabad”.

“Fierce political debates happen in JNU, between the many leftist organisations and also between the Left and the Right, but never in the history of JNU have they received such media attention. Disrespecting the glorious academic and political environment of the university, select media organisations and the government planned this attack on JNU. The way Umar Khalid was linked to terrorist groups was plain ridiculous. And the ABVP took an active part in this smear campaign against its own university,” said Sucheta De, national president of the All India Students’ Association, the student wing of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) (Liberation). Kanhaiya’s release has come as a relief to the JNU community, and now students plan to intensify the struggle. “We have been demanding that all charges on students should be dropped. Umar Khalid and Anirban Bhattacharya, who are still in jail, should be released immediately. The Delhi Police have instructed vendors not to print our posters and pamphlets. We will have to fight against this witch-hunt. It is not a crime to raise our voices against human rights abuses, police excesses in Adivasi lands, and anti-people policies of the government. Our movement will keep speaking about these issues until the hounding of dissenting voices stop,” said Sucheta.

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