I remember another major police action at JNU. It was the summer of ’83 and we, the students of JNU, had gheraoed the vice-chancellor in his house for the umpteenth time. The pretext was the expulsion of the president of the student union, the Kanhaiya Kumar of the day, for reasons that escape me now.
The police arrived in the late afternoon. They broke down the vice-chancellor’s house, “rescued him” and arrested a bunch of us. Another 300-odd courted arrest. We were beaten (I was) and thrown into Tihar jail, charged not quite with sedition, but attempt to murder and the rest. The charges were eventually dropped — thank god — but not before we spent ten days or so in Tihar.
The police action was sponsored by the Congress government at the Centre and had the support of much of the faculty, many of whom, like the vice-chancellor, were prominent members of the Left. The justification, I recall, was that the student body had become “lumpenised” (what an ugly word), and could no longer be relied upon to pursue historically appropriate causes. A telling sign of the lumpenisation was the election of a student union president who was not from the reliable SFI and AISF, student wings, respectively of the CPM and CPI. The incident was used as an excuse to change JNU’s radical admissions policy, which gave students who had gone to school in rural areas extra points in the admission process, which was identified as the way all these lumpens were getting into JNU.
There were allegations that this was in fact the main purpose of the intervention and the expulsion of the union president was a deliberate provocation, intended to precipitate a protest that could be used as an excuse. It could have been, though I never saw any proof that this was the case: What it undoubtedly was is an attempt by the State to establish the lines of authority. We are the boss they were telling us, shut up and behave.
It seems that the current mess, though much more shrill and unpleasant (I don’t recall the home minister having anything to say about the matter back in 1983, nor lawyers beating up journalists, nor the entire opposition trying to score points), is in many ways quite similar. Once again there seems to have been an internal angle; the apparently fake Hafiz Saeed tweets, and the allegations of imposters shouting pro-Pakistan slogans (who else would, the Left in India has no love for Pakistan…) suggest a set up, perhaps by some student group, with or without outside sponsorship. But the reaction of the State, embodied in the charges of sedition and subsequent statements by prominent politicians and public personalities aligned with the current government, sends the same message: How dare you!
It is important to recognise that one can reasonably disagree about the substance of the students’ position or even its symbolic content. This is not the right place to discuss the Kashmiri peoples’ right to self-determination, or Afzal Guru’s hanging, or indeed whether anyone should ever be hanged, but it suffices to say that these are not straightforward issues, whatever my private views be about them. If Rajnath Singh had taken it upon himself to take the students to task for adopting positions that he felt were immature or incorrect, I might have disagreed with him but I would have recognised that this is his prerogative, or even his responsibility, given the stance we have taken as a nation. But to call it sedition is to trivialise a very serious charge and endanger the safe space that universities have traditionally provided. Just as the government had in 1983 when it accused us of attempting to murder the vice-chancellor.
Every nation necessarily inhabits a morally compromised space. All too often our ideals seem to be held to ransom by what we believe, rightly or wrongly, to be objective reality. As India, we support the self-determination of the Palestinian people but not those of the Kashmiris, because we need to secure our borders or because we need to protect the Kashmiri people from some greater evil across the border or because we need to defend the legitimacy of the original accession. Whatever those arguments be, when we make them it is vital that we recognise that we are on delicate terrain, vital that every time we deviate from our stated ideals we take a deep breath and think about it. This is why universities, and civil society more generally, are so important for a democracy like ours, founded on a genuine idealism that we have a hard time holding on to. They provide a space to question whatever we are doing in the name of things we say we believe in or might believe in. It’s a space where we can say things we half believe in, or even disbelieve, to provoke a reaction that might teach us what we really believe. Students often say things that they will one day change their minds about, but also things that change our minds when we think about them. We need the space. Please stay out.
Abhijit Banerjee is Ford Foundation International Professor of Economics and Director, Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab, MIT The views expressed are personal