It was a stirring evening of resistance, solidarity and hope.
On Saturday, I joined several thousand students, teachers and political leaders outside the office of the Vice Chancellor of Jawaharlal University in Delhi, to protest the arrest of the JNU Students’ Union President Kanhaiya Kumar, and the presence of the police on the campus. Armed security forces were visible everywhere on the campus. The university had begun to resemble a cantonment under siege.
The university management had turned off the electric power connections at the meeting site to prevent the use of the loudspeakers, in a ham-handed attempt to foil the protest. The students used makeshift battery-operated mikes instead, and the voices of the speakers still carried far because the large crowd of students was disciplined and quiet. Intermittently, students cheered each of the speakers, raised their clenched fists in slogans, and celebrated their unity and defiance. It has been a long time since I felt surrounded by the heady optimism of youth, camaraderie and idealism as I did this evening.
The campus has many students’ unions, reflecting a wide range of ideological opinion, from many shades of the Left, socialist, centrist and right-wing politics. There is usually sharp rivalry and competition between these various student groups. But after Kumar’s arrest, all these student unions came together at this protest, except the student wing of the BJP – the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad. What was also unusual about the protest was that large section of the JNU teachers’ union also joined and supported the students’ protest.
In a corner of the massive student gathering, a small number of students of the ABVP raised slogans and black flags supporting the police action against the student leaders. Their numbers were too small to drown out the speeches from the podium. The ABVP students’ counter-slogans formed only a kind of background score to the evening’s events, which in a strange way I did not find discordant (except when the students assaulted one of the speakers).The exercise by this small minority of students of their right to protest only further reinforced the larger student demand to defend the spaces for democratic dissent and debate inside the campus of all shades of political opinion.
Many speakers celebrated the unique place that JNU has carved out for itself in India’s public and intellectual life, and indeed in nation-building. Every tongue spoke in the vast and diverse land of India could be heard somewhere in the hostels of this university. Every community from every corner of the country has contributed students to this campus. Every colour of political opinion would find its adherents in this campus. Democratic debate is central to the university’s ethos. I have often been invited by JNU students from diverse unions for after-dinner debates, and each time I accept, I am struck by the numbers of students who voluntarily gather for these meetings, listen carefully, and engage and passionately debate with me and other speakers late into the night.
The right to dream
When my turn came to speak during Saturday’s protest, it was late into the evening. I began by declaring that a country is infinitely poorer if its young people are prevented from their free right to dream and dissent, because throughout history and across the planet, the journey of creating a more just and humane world has begun always with the dreams and also the challenges and disagreements of its young people. If Kanhaiya Kumar, the JNU Students’ Union President, is anti-national, and before him, if Rohith Vemula of the Hyderabad Central University was anti-national, then I declared that I too am anti-national.
By all credible accounts, the meeting of February 9 that set off this storm had been organised not to uphold separatist politics but to protest against the principle of the death penalty awarded to Afzal Guru, convicted for his role in the Parliament attack of 2001. I recall my own writings at the time he was marched to the gallows. At that time, I wrote in the Hindu: “The hanging of Afzal Guru on 9 February, 2013 raises a thicket of debates – ethical, legal and political – about justice, law, democracy, capital punishment, and a strong state. What is the quality of true justice? Is it enough for it to be lawful, fair and dispassionate, or must it also be tempered with mercy?”
I went on to say that the High Court’s reference in its 2003 judgment to “the collective conscience of the society” being satisfied by awarding the death penalty to Guru caused me great unease, because the only legitimate reason for a court to award any punishment should be the fair application of the law to the evidence placed before it, not the appeasement of alleged majoritarian public opinion. I also expressed my anguish at the distressing failure of official compassion and public decency in denying Afzal Guru’s wife and teenaged son the chance to meet him for the last time before his execution. The haste and secrecy of the execution also unconscionably denied him his last available legal resource, affirmed by the Supreme Court in the Kartar Singh case, to seek judicial review of the rejection of his mercy petition.
I had concluded: “Many believe that the belated execution signalled a strong and decisive state, especially to the ‘neighbouring country’. One glance at the daily reality of this neighbouring country will reflect the brutalising wages of years of “decisive” politics of militarism and public vengeance. It is not a weak, but a stable, mature and confident democracy which can display compassion even to those we may believe have most wronged the country.”
Unsurprisingly, I was attacked savagely on social media by trolls of a particular political persuasion, casting me to be “anti-national” for months. But at least I was not booked for sedition. It worries me deeply that today this same debate – that raises most fundamental questions of public ethics and law – initiated by students in a university, instead of being welcomed, is treated as criminal sedition, for which the principal organiser is at the time of writing in police remand.
A mischievous claim
There is little doubt that Kanhaiya Kumar could not have either raised or supported slogans against the Indian nation, because these were never part of his politics, or those of AISF (the All India Students’ Federation) of which he was a member in JNU or the Communist Party of India, of which AISF is the student wing. The charges against him are transparently a mischievous attempt to use untruths to stoke popular majoritarian and hyper-nationalist sentiment against both him and the university that had elected him to lead its Students’ Union.
However, it is important to add that even if there were some Kashmiri students who did raise slogans expressing disaffection against India and in support of independence for Kashmir, the fitting response to this would only have been open public debate in which students and teachers heard their views and challenged these, not to charge these students with the grave colonial crime of sedition that could result in their imprisonment for up to 10 years. Universities are places where young people must feel free to challenge the received wisdom of the times they live in. Their minds and hearts must be freed of the fetters of fear and the obligation to conform to powerful or dominant opinion. It is in universities that students the world over have fought colonialism, unjust wars, tyranny, hate and unequal social orders. Governments and indeed majority opinion may be pitted powerfully against their views, but a democracy requires the stout defence of their right to profess and debate these ideas, even by those who are opposed to these ideas. Universities in a democracy cannot be allowed to become places where the institution’s leadership allows police to walk in and arrest students at will, and where dissent by students or indeed teachers is demonised and criminalised.
It is for these reasons that I declared that if Kanhaiya Kumar is charged with sedition, I demand that I be tried for the same crime. And I know that I am not alone in this demand.