JNU row: When dissent becomes sedition, democracy gasps for breath

  • Rohan D’Souza
  • Updated: Feb 14, 2016 09:28 IST
Teachers and non-teaching staff outside the vice-chancellor’s office at Jawaharlal Nehru University. (Vipin Kumar/HT Photo)

Sedition is a colonial word and means nothing in a democracy. Unless, of course, you wish to undermine democracy by reviving colonial law. One cannot but see the farce that has followed the sudden fear of ‘anti nationalism’ in recent days. On Friday evening, a BJP spokesperson on a prominent TV channel took it upon himself to repeat on five instances the so-called ‘anti national’ slogan, with no fear of being charged by the said sedition law. The same evening a very frothing and famous TV anchor displayed the ‘anti national’ posters to his television audience; again with no fear of the national Indian government.

So here is the problem: If there is an anti-national slogan or poster that is repeated or displayed by presumably a nationalist, it does not invite action under the sedition law? In effect, we are in a bizarre crisis. It doesn’t matter what is said as much as who says it. This is, in fact, precisely why sedition is a colonial law and why Indians struggled for independence, democracy and freedom.

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Judging from how the events unfolded on the JNU campus, one is seriously left wondering if it was not part of a pre-decided script. As if on cue, hordes of ABVP activists suddenly turned up on Rajpath demanding justice against anti-nationalism. A visibly disturbed home minister on a plane flying somewhere loudly worried if slogans could be more dangerous than cross border terrorism. And an education minister, who is normally always following administrative protocol and keeping university autonomy in mind, suddenly almost broke down to the thought of a fragile Mother India wilting to anti-national slogans.

None asked for an inquiry, none wanted a detailed report and there was almost Bollywood-esque clarity about who the bad guys were and what they had done.

Residents of Munirka village protest against anti-national campus misuse in front of JNU in New Delhion Friday. (S Burmaula/ HT Photo)

The Delhi police on order without hesitation sprung upon JNU campus and carried out a desperate search for the purported anti-national sloganeers. Alongside taking a hiatus from catching rapists and other criminals, they arrested the union president, room searched hostels and wrapped themselves firmly around the JNU university gate. Meanwhile, some of the news channels went ecstatic about how anti-nationals were pouring out of JNU class rooms and why one should take their eyes off a falling Sensex, the fact that Barack Obama had just given Pakistan a new fleet of F-16s and how the Pathankot attack is a fast fading memory.

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As a former general secretary of the Jawaharlal Nehru University Students’ Union (1989-90), I see a different story here. To me, by using tax payers money to chase anti-national slogans across Indian universities with a bent stick called sedition, two possible plots might be happening. First, the government’s much vaunted development agenda is perhaps not getting very far. The jobs never happened and growth seems to be a fiction by numbers. Second, it might also be the case that Prime Minister Modi has lost control of the party with a section going rogue.

JNU is a great place of learning. My PhD there put me on par with some of the best universities in the world. I had the privilege of being accepted for postdocs at Yale University (the education minister’s alma mater, we were once told) and at the University of California (Berkeley). I say this not to be immodest but to tell students and parents that if you allow this government to destroy this fantastic university on a trumped-up sense of what is anti-national, you will ruin your own hopes and your own futures. I made it because of JNU and I hope parents will wish well for their children and their future.

(The author, a former student and faculty at JNU, is currently an associate professor at Kyoto University, Japan)

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