I have long suspected that we, as a people, are prone to hyperbole and overreaction. Rarely, if ever, do we strike the right balance, hit the proper note or come up with the mot juste. When discretion and judgement are required we have a knack of ending up in extreme positions. To put it bluntly, we often get difficult calls wrong.
The incident at Jawaharlal Nehru University has convinced me I’m correct. It called for deft handling. We responded with a blunderbuss. In the process the government and the police embarrassed themselves whilst some of my colleagues on television ended up looking plain silly.
First, however, let me make a little qualification. India is not Europe or America and slogans proclaiming “Bharat ki Barbadi tak Kashmir ki Azadi tak jung karenge jung karenge” or “Bharat tere tukade honge InsaAllah InsaAllah” cross a desi redline and are considered wrong. The key question is: What should you do about them?
I would say three factors need to be borne in mind when you consider your response. First, students tend to be anti-establishment and defiant of authority. Revolt and reaction is part of the process of growing up. We’ve all gone through it. More importantly, the challenge this poses often forces a valuable rethink. If nothing else, it’s how society evolves. This is one reason for tolerating what you might consider the unspeakable.
Second, university campuses are places where debate and dissent is to be encouraged not quashed. And encouragement means permitting, at times even encouraging, the unlikeable and, possibly, also the offensive. Otherwise you could undermine the raison d’etre of a university.
Third, how much criticism a government or State can tolerate is an indication of their self-confidence and maturity. Cracking down on dissidence suggests weakness even if for some it seems like a tough response. Here appearances actually deceive.
Unfortunately, disregarding the above, the Delhi Police responded with charges of sedition, leading to arrest and custodial detention. That’s like swinging a battle-axe to crack a nut. There were better, subtler and more refined alternatives they did not consider.
The astute move would have been to ignore the slogans after forcefully criticising them. When American university students rose in protest against the Vietnam War, including rallies in support of Ho Chi Minh and the burning of the Stars and Stripes, Lyndon Johnson didn’t charge them with sedition or arrest them. Instead he let them spend their passion, knowing it would eventually diminish. Similarly, in 1968, when Tariq Ali, then a Pakistani citizen, claimed he was leading a revolution, the British didn’t slap sedition charges or even deport him. They simply advised him against travelling to France, where the authorities might not have been so tolerant! A few years later they made him a British citizen.
Our authorities unwisely opted to charge the students with sedition. Not only is that defiance of Supreme Court judgments which say sedition can apply only when there is a clear and immediate incitement to violence — which definitely was not the case — it’s also a section of our penal code which wise leaders like Jawaharlal Nehru hoped would be scrapped or, at least, never enforced.
Of course, the BJP government is not the first to misuse sedition. The Congress was equally guilty of such abuse. So too a host of different state governments. But that only proves my point: As a people we are prone to hyperbole and overreaction. We don’t know how to strike the right balance.
The views expressed are personal