Dear Modi Government, This Is Not Sedition

The arrest of Kanhaiya Kumar, the elected President of the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) Students' Union, on charges of sedition, and the conversion of JNU's campus into a virtual police camp, has led to a wave of protests across the campuses of India.

That protest will merge with the ongoing outrage against the institutional murder of Rohith Vemula.

In both cases, the central government encroached - in a direct, heavy-handed, and authoritarian way - on the autonomy of universities in order to defend the interests of the Akhil Bharatiiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) by ordering its chosen man at the head of each University to bury his conscience and act according to the dictates of a union ministry.

In JNU, it was on the direct orders of Home Minister RajnathSingh to find the "anti-national elements" that the Delhi police raided student hostels. The police were further empowered by the Vice-Chancellor, also presumably acting on the Home Minister's instructions, who gave an unprecedented written open license to the police to enter the campus any time they wished. An open FIR has been filed which means that any student can be picked up. A list has been prepared with the names of leaders of Left organisations.

On the other hand, the ABVP and the police are partners in the identification and hunt for students. Witnesses speak of the presence of Rashtriya Seva Sangh (RSS) men standing with the men in uniform at the main gate of JNU, checking identity cards. They are now roaming around the University, shouting provocative slogans, entering school areas, and generally indulging in hooliganism, safe in the knowledge that the Human Resource Development Minister and others in the Modi Government will consider all this "nationalistic" activity.

What is the issue? A fringe group organized a function to discuss what they described as the judicial murder of Afzal Guru. The posters for this were all over campus, but at the time, the authorities did not feel the necessity to interfere with the function.

At the last minute and at the instigation of the ABVP, the authorities suddenly cancelled the permission without any reason. The group went ahead with the function, held in an open ground. It is here that the police allege (on the basis of videos whose authenticity is a matter for the judicial probe ordered by the Delhi Government) that objectionable anti-national slogans were raised.

The JNUSU President Kanhaiya Kumar, who belongs to the AISF, (or for that matter any leader of the SFI which is being defamed on national channels) was not present or had anything to do with the function. They could not have, since politically and ideologically the organisations they belong to have nothing in common with the organisers of the function or their support of the demand for Azad Kashmir. In fact the fringe groups who organized the function, with no following in the campus, are as abusive of the organized Left as is the RSS parivar.

Even going by the Home Minister's unacceptable definition of "anti-national", there is not a shred of evidence of that any so-called anti-national slogans were raised by Kanhaiya Kumar. He and others reached the event later, after news spread around the campus of slogans and counter-slogans and of growing tension between the organisers and their supporters on the one side, and the ABVP, who had gathered to oppose the event, on the other. There were participants on both sides who were not JNU students.

It is thus clear that the arrest of Kumar is blatantly illegal. The charge against him is entirely manufactured. The elected President of the JNU Students' Union (JNUSU) should immediately be released and all charges against him dropped.

His arrest is not linked to anything he did but designed to advance the larger agenda of the RSS and its front organisation, the ABVP. They cannot win over the students of India through democratically held elections, so they use the lathi and the power of the state and its jails to establish their hegemony.

Since its inception, JNU has always been a target for right-wing forces because its vibrant democratic and secular environment is the exact opposite of the RSS idea of a hierarchical and patriarchal gurukula. In recent days, particularly after the events in Hyderabad University as well as the widespread protests of students against the withdrawal of non-NET scholarships, the Modi Government and in particular, HRD Minister Smriti Irani, have faced strong criticism. The ABVP has been isolated.

These forces see the JNU developments as a pretext to break growing student unity and mobilisations through a campaign of calumny and repression. They have even started a highly objectionable abusive sexist campaign against women students evidenced by the tweets from the OSD of the Haryana Chief Minister. Independent minded articulate women students such as those in JNU are legitimate targets for the shakha men.

The video clips, accompanied by defamatory commentary against JNU and the Left, now being shown repeatedly on some national television channels, show a group of students holding pictures of Afzal Guru, with some shouting slogans for an independent Kashmir. The slogan "Pakistan Zindabad" comes from another corner of the screen, although one cannot see the person raising the slogan on screen. This, then, is what is being called "sedition."

Incidentally, none of them chooses to show the video clip of Kanhaiya's passionate speech where he affirms his faith in the Constitutional values which are being trampled upon by the RSS.

The substantive point is does protest against the hanging of Afzal Guru or supporting the demand for an independent Kashmir constitutes "sedition"? The public expression of a point of view, however abhorrent it may be to some and however much some may disagree with it, does not amount to sedition. If, for example, the slogans constituted hate speech or incited communal hatred, other sections of the law may have applied. Sedition, which comes under Sec 124a of the Indian Penal Code, definitely does not apply here.

The courts are quite clear on this. In Kedarnath Singh vs State of Bihar (1962), a five-judge bench of the Supreme Court ruled that the charge of sedition would apply only if there was "an incitement to violence or public disorder." In Balwant Singh vs State of Punjab, a case that involved a meeting organised by some Sikhs after the assassination of Indira Gandhi at which some provocative slogans were raised for the establishment of Khalistan, the Supreme Court struck down, on similar grounds,the conviction of the accused by a lower court under Section 124a of the IPC.

The actions of the present Government only go to show the urgent necessity of the removal from the criminal law of Section 124a, an obnoxious provision of the law introduced by the British Raj in the 19th century to act against the leaders of the freedom struggle, our true nationalists. Such a law should have no place in the statute books of a democratic country.

Article 19 of the Constitution guarantees freedom of expression in India. This freedom does not, of course, permit the incitement of hatred between religious communities, and so on. No exceptions of the far-reaching freedoms provided by Article 19 apply to the placards held or slogans raised by the students.

If anyone considers the students' slogans anti-national, let them fight it out politically and ideologically. The power of the State cannot be used to suppress opinion or to file an open First Information Report (FIR), a measure that stands as a threat of arrest to any student who protests the actions of the government or police. Can such action be acceptable in any democracy? Is it "nationalism" when the organisations of the Sangh Parivaar glorify Nathuram Godse, the murderer of Gandhi, and collect money to build a statue in tribute to him? Were any FIRs filed against them when they shouted slogans saying that Gandhi deserved to be killed? Article 19 cannot be used selectively, that is, as and when it suits the Sangh Parivar.

Faculty members of JNU, Deans of the Schools in the university, the Teachers' Association, distinguished alumni and alumnae, and retired Deans have all urged the Vice-Chancellor to bring normalcy back to the University and to adhere to basic democratic norms. It would be in the best interests of the institution that he now heads if the Vice-Chancellor were to listen to these voices of reason rather than to those inside and outside government who want to weaken - if not close down - an institution of which India is justly proud.

The police must immediately release Kanhaiya Kumar and leave campus, and withdraw the open FIR which is a license for a witch hunt on campus.

(Brinda Karat is a Politburo member of the CPI(M) and a former Member of the Rajya Sabha.)

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First Published: February 14, 2016 14:14