If there is one thing we must fear, it is the complete lack of fear on the part of the rogue dramatis personae in the fast-deteriorating JNU case. Even by our somewhat elastic standards of public probity and conduct, the recent events have been appalling and the very antithesis of what a democratic nation should be all about. A former AAP luminary hit the nail on the head when he said in a television show that had the government been mature enough to leave well alone and let the university deal with the issue, it would have got its 15 minutes of fame. But now, as he put it, millions of people have got to hear of it and it has sharply polarised society into those who are with the ‘nationalists’ and those who are against them.
I have rarely heard anything more chilling than officers of the court, in this case lawyers, lying in wait in a court and belabouring a person in custody, Kanhaiya Kumar, the student leader charged with sedition. If that were not enough to shock the daylights out of you, one of the lawyers taunted the media, asking them to take pictures of him, and boasted of how he hit the hapless student on the face and got in a few kicks. Earlier, these vile people set about thrashing political activists and mediapersons. At each step they seemed to have no compunctions about the fact that their actions were being captured on camera; in fact, they wore their infamy as a badge of honour. Later one of the offending lawyers was pictured being garlanded by colleagues.
And in all this, you might well ask, where were the Delhi Police? They were right there, watching indulgently as the lawyers ran amuck. The police commissioner seems to have become a master of evasive answers, telling people that the student leader was actually jostled and not beaten. Pull the other one, Mr Bassi, it’s got bells on. I am staggered at how the police have conducted themselves in all this. It is either extremely incompetent or extremely partisan or both. And then we have pictures of the Union home minister, the overlord of the police, in a cosy pose with the ghastly lawyer who led an earlier assault within the court precincts.
In all this, the central government appears quite unrepentant barring the finance minister, who expressed regret in the strongest terms over the assault on mediapersons. As the days have gone by since the unfortunate incidents in JNU, the rhetoric has got ever uglier. One BJP MLA has gone so far as to say that the Congress vice-president is guilty of sedition, a charge which has been levelled against the JNU student leader without any factual evidence, and that he, the Congress vice-president, should be hanged. In any civilised society, the MLA would be behind bars, but he is roaming about quite happily, giving vile soundbites to anyone who cares to listen. Another MLA OP Sharma, who bashed up a political activist, spoke on camera to inform us that he restricted himself to using his fists, but had he had a gun, he would have shot the offender. He was fair bristling with rage at the insult to Bharat Mata. The lawyer in the latest assault also felt that he could not remain impassive while a dagger was being thrust through Mother India’s heart.
I have rarely in all my years in the media seen so much visceral anger towards and intolerance of dissenting points of view. In recent times, any attempt to express an opinion contrary to some twisted majoritarian one is to invite criticism of one’s patriotic credentials. I am a patriot and a nationalist. But I do not need to wear it on my sleeve nor do I need to make anyone conform to my ideas. What is happening today brings to mind the immortal lines from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar: ‘O judgment! Thou art fled to brutish beasts/And men have lost their reason. Bear with me.’
Which brings me to how the government of the day has handled the whole thing. In one word, disastrously. In the first place, it should have left the whole thing to be resolved by the university, using internal mechanisms. It should have stepped in only if the university expressed its inability to do so. But instead the police went clomping in and arrested people with the less than articulate police chief offering all sorts of wild explanations. Had the government deployed savvy political managers to handle the issue with finesse instead of in this amateurish and dangerous manner, it could have come out looking progressive and student-friendly. Instead we have the home minister speaking of how Pakistani terrorist Hafiz Saeed is behind the whole thing, based on a tweet which now turns out to be fake.
The matter has now spun so much out of control that other universities are also in ferment. Please remember that this comes on the heels of the suicide of Rohith Vemula, a Dalit student in Hyderabad Central University. In that unfortunate event also, minister for labour and employment Bandaru Dattatreya played an ignoble role as did an over-eager HRD minister. And I thought this was a government that had its finger on the pulse of the people.
I know that all the anguish expressed by academics from India and across the world and the voices of civil society leaders and students don’t matter to the thugs who have taken the law into their own fists. The media can write and broadcast till the cows come home but they are convinced of the righteousness of their execrable actions. Not for them any reasoned debate and discussion, it is hit first and ask questions later.
We are at a stage when we are hoping to make a splash on the world stage with Make in India, a foreign policy-savvy prime minister leading the global outreach charge. What kind of impression are we conveying about ourselves if lumpen elements are allowed to run riot? I want to know if they are the arbiters of nationalism. If so, I want no part of it. India has withstood many trials and tribulations in its history. It is not likely to collapse at the first sign of a dissent. India does not need the protection of thuggish lawyers but it certainly could do with the police doing its job instead of the commissioner holding forth on television channels defending the indefensible.
However this pans out, the damage has been done. Calls to shut down a great institution of learning, slurs against the highest court in the land, a rabid intolerance of differing points of view, an ineffective or complicit police force, a political establishment that does not react in time or at all, these are all things which will not go away easily. It has damaged our image, our body politic, our democracy. It has served to encourage the loony fringe and rogue elements in our society. The healing process can begin only when these self-styled violent patriots feel the full force of the law and the police are made accountable for their spectacular inaction. But I am not really holding my breath on this.