There are few markers of British rule in India more obvious than the hated sedition law. Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Bhagat Singh and, of course, Mahatma Gandhi himself have been held guilty of “exciting disaffection against the government” during India’s freedom struggle.
Given its colonial antecedents, sedition laws have been removed from the rule books of most other democracies, including its country of origin, the UK. But in India, far from being abolished, the concept of sedition seems to have become more popular in the recent past.
After the row in Jawaharlal Nehru University on February 9 last year, when three students were arrested on sedition charges after an on-campus event on Kashmir, 2017 is seeing accusations of sedition against the students and faculty of Ramjas College at the University of Delhi.
On Wednesday, the students’ wing of the Bharatiya Janata Party, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad submitted a video shot on a mobile phone to the Delhi Police, which it claims contains proof of so-called anti-India slogans being raised by students at the Delhi university during protests last week. The videos also led a lawyer to file a complaint in a Delhi court seeking directions to the Delhi Police to lodge a sedition case against students.
The ABVP had got a talk by JNU student Umar Khalid scheduled for February 21 at Ramjas College cancelled. They also allegedly tried to disrupt the seminar and vandalise the venue. Students and teachers of the college then led a protest, during which there were violent clashes between the ABVP and students led by Left-wing organisations.
JNU Déjà vu
If this story seems familiar, it is. Almost the exact same thing happened in Jawaharlal Nehru University during February, 2016.
The ABVP raised accusations that so-called anti-national slogans had been shouted at the JNU campus during the February 9 event. Based on this, a media trial commenced, taking the ABVP complaint at face value and raising up a bogey of sedition.
The police, taking cognisance of the videos they saw on television, proceeded to file a sedition case against JNU Student Union President Kanhaiya Kumar, Khalid, Anirban Bhattacharya and other students.
While the media frenzy was easy to pull off, actually proving sedition was a tougher. Almost immediately, there were accusations that the videos had been doctored. In another case, a whistleblower at Zee News – the first channel to run the slogan videos – claimed that benign slogans such as “long live Indian court” were wrongly subtitled “long live Pakistan”.
In spite of the media glare and despite having the videos in their possession for more than a year, the Delhi Police is yet to even file formal charges in the case. Recent reports suggest that the Delhi Police has been unable to identify Kumar’s voice on any of the videos. When asked on Tuesday when the charge sheet would be filed, the Delhi Police declined to provide a date, claiming, “investigations were still on”.
Kumar blamed the delay in filing the charge sheet on a political conspiracy. “Whether it be JNU or Ramjas, this is a larger conspiracy to shut down publicly funded higher education,” Kumar said to Scroll.in. “The anti-national debate is a fake one and is just being done to distract us from the real issues.”
He added, “If such a major event like sedition has happened, then why is there no charge sheet till now? The court needs to take cognisance of this delay and the people who have mislead the nation need to stand trial.”
Bitten but not shy
Given that the Union government too waded into the JNU case, with ministers issuing statements condemning the purported anti-national sloganeering, it seems that the BJP saw political capital in encouraging a charged debate on nationalism.
Thus, it may not be a surprise that the ABVP has resurrected the anti-national sloganeering charge, this time at Ramjas College. Unfortunately, like in 2016, sections of the media are fanning fires again.
On Wednesday, India Today ran a video – received from the ABVP – of what it called “anti-India slogans at Ramjas”.
While India Today said it could not “independently verify the authenticity of this video” yet, contradicting its own disclaimer, it proceeded to conduct a 16-minute programme assuming the slogans had been shouted and were seditious. At one point, the anchor asked rhetorically, “Is disintegration in the name of dissent justified?” Later, she says, “one can clearly hear what the students are shouting”.
Associate editor Gaurav Sawant came in with a sentence whose first part contradicted the second: “Again, this video is yet to be authenticated [but] chants of ‘Bastar ki azadi’, ‘Kashmir ki azadi’ can be heard”. What the audibility of slogans means when the video itself cannot be authenticated is a logical fallacy Sawant did not tackle.
And like with the JNU incident, the Union government has made the row in Ramjas too a major political issue, with ministers such as Kiren Rijuju declaring that “No anti-India slogans will be allowed in the name of freedom of speech.”