India has bigger issues than a few protesting students

Source: PTI

At least when the police hit JNU on that hot summer night in July 1975, following the imposition of the Emergency, they came surreptitiously in the night. This time around their raids have been in broad daylight.

Then, as now, they came invoking the law of the country. But where the Emergency, howsoever wrong, came through a Presidential proclamation under Article 352(1) of the constitution adopted by free India in 1950, the raid on February 12 to arrest JNUSU president Kanhaiya Kumar was on the basis of a sedition law passed by our colonial masters in 1870.

This was a law drafted by Thomas Babington Macaulay in 1833, so there is great irony that a political tendency in this country which constantly inveighs against “Macaulay ki aulad” (children of Macaulay) is today invoking laws that originated with him.

Not to forget, of course, that “disloyalty” in that law was to the Empress of India who sat in London.

More than anything else, the incident reveals the immaturity of the ministerial team of the Modi government.

Where Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh has taken the seemingly high road by calling for action against anti-national elements, his HRD counterpart Smriti Irani has taken the low one, claiming an insult to an abstract non-legal concept called ‘Bharat Mata.’

Both missed the point that, as it exists in the Indian law, sedition cannot be applied to mere words and statements, but to actually waging war against the state or abetting it.

In no way did slogans in favour of Afzal Guru, or even those allegedly calling for the destruction of India, meet that test.

Indeed, given the very limited nature of the protest, there are no indications that the group of students were inciting the group to attack anyone.

The two ministers have no understanding that young students will be volatile, excitable, rebellious, often irresponsible, and always ready to take up a cause. It is up to the government to channel their energies, not use the sledgehammer to swat them out.

Neither do these ministers have the slightest inkling that dissent is central to democracy, not a peripheral issue.

Authority 

The Sangh Parivar members, who have been thrust into important positions of authority in the country, are all afflicted with a great desire to exercise their power, never mind the spirit of the constitution and the law.

You cannot get a better example of this from the Maharashtra BJP government’s September 2015 order that virtually conflates sedition with any attack on the government itself.

In Gujarat, the BJP government has invoked the sedition law against Hardik Patel, who is leading an agitation favouring reservations for the Patel community for sending messages that use “offensive language against the Prime Minister, the state chief minister and BJP president Amit Shah.”

This is the same tendency of using power that lead to the suicide of Rohith Vemula after being expelled by the University of Hyderabad. In that case, too, the ABVP which is leading the charge in JNU, was involved, claiming that Rohith had participated in the protest against the death penalty to Yakub Memon.

What is really under threat is the right of the freedom of speech guaranteed by our constitution. By declaring people ‘anti-national’ or ‘seditious’, efforts are being made to abridge these rights.

Where in the Emergency, the government invoked a provision of the Constitution to deny the right, albeit temporarily, here the effort is to shape the discourse in such a way that any view contrary to that of the Sangh Parivar becomes seditious. So you cannot oppose Afzal Guru or Yakub Memon’s hanging, and nor can you express contempt for BJP notables.

Amazingly, this great defence of ‘nationalism’ and ‘nationalist values’ comes from a political ideology which had little role in the national movement that brought freedom to the country.

At that time nationalism actually meant something, including the hardship of long terms in prison. Today all that it seems to be is a cudgel to belabour your adversaries.

In the 69 years since India gained Independence, we have been through a lot – separatist movements in the North-east, Kashmir, Punjab and even for a while Tamil Nadu. There were wars, covert and overt, famine, economic distress and so on.

Today in 2016 we have largely defeated all these challenges and stand tall as a nation. Our real task is the economic transformation of the country at the earliest. We need to get down to dealing with that, rather than get caught in hysterical protests against imaginary enemies.

This commentary originally appeared in The Daily Mail.

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Manoj Joshi

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