The essential ideals of democracy are being debated upon in India. A national debate has been urged by students, writers, and the intelligentsia community that intolerance towards any dissent is being crushed while it should be allowed to flourish, questioned, and contested. India’s independence movement was based on the ideals of secularism, freedom of religion, freedom of expression and the freedom of thought. However, India is surging with protests across the country that are continuing to fight for those very fundamental rights.
On February 9, a group of students at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) gathered to commemorate the 2013 hanging of Afzal Guru. Afzal Guru was convicted for his role in the attack on India’s parliament in 2001. The group of students was heard shouting “anti-national” slogans such as “We will fight until India’s destruction.” Members of another student group, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), at JNU protested in opposition to the “anti-national” slogans. ABVP, while an independent organisation, is known to be the students’ wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a Hindu extremist group. As Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was initiated as the political wing of RSS in 1951, ABVP is often affiliated with the BJP.
Kanhaiya Kumar, the leader of JNU Students’ Union was arrested on allegations of sedition after the protests on February 9th. At the time of his arrest it was not clear whether Kumar or the JNU Students’ Union was involved in the protest. However, he was arrested on grounds of complaints filed by BJP Member of Parliament Maheish Girri and ABVP. Many scholars including Former Attorney General, Soli Sorabjee, have come out since, to expose the lack of ground on which the arrest was made. Sorabjee went on to call the arrest on grounds of anti-national sentiments as “deplorable” as Kumar retains the right to free speech.
The situation escalated on February 15 outside the Patiala House Courts where Kanhaiya Kumar’s case was to be heard. BJP MLA, Om Prakash Sharma, openly attacked a member of the Communist Party of India, Ameeque Jamai who was their in protest to the arrest of Kumar. Sharma’s reaction seemed to have incited his supporters and around 40 lawyers in the crowd to attack members of the media and student protesters while the police half-heartedly attempted to protect them.
Sharma claims he was simply trying to stop a man from screaming “pro-Pakistan” slogans and not actually beating Jamai. However, pictures and videos of the scene clearly show otherwise. This kind of behavior does not behoove an elected member of parliament, especially one in the largest democracy in the world. Mr. Sorabjee also mentioned that “no individual can become a law enforcer” referring to the MLA leader. Sorabjee’s words could easily be referring to the lawyers beating up JNU students. The lawyers had actually communicated the day before the incident to gather in front of the court and “peacefully” teach the protesters what it “takes to be a patriot.” The controversy has since raised questions around “patriotism” and “constitutional rights.”
After the arrest, security agencies revealed to the Home Ministry that Kanhaiya Kumar might not have raised any anti-national slogans and that the sedition charge could be “over enthusiasm” on the part of police officers present at the scene. In fact the speech that he was arrested for condemned violence, and rallied “to strengthen democracy.” In his speech Kanhaiya Kumar said:
"We have full faith in our country’s Constitution. And we want to firmly assert that if anyone lifts a finger against this country’s Constitution — whether the Sanghis or anyone else — we won’t tolerate it..."Then why are they (ABVP and RSS) so uncomfortable? They have a problem when the people of this country talk about democracy.”
This incident is similar to the recent Hyderabad Central University incident where a PhD student, Rohith Vemula, committed suicide. His suicide seems to have stemmed from a disciplinary action by the university and expulsion from hostel against 5 students including Vemula. Letters from Union Minister Badera Dattreya and Smriti Irani seem to have influenced the decision for expulsion.
The disciplinary action was taken due to his involvement in protests by the Ambedkar Students Association (ASA) in August of 2015 in which the student group protested against the ABVP chapter’s actions to disrupt the screening of the documentary “Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hai.” It was based on the 2013 anti-Muslim massacre in Western Uttar Pradesh. It is believed that his suicide is in protest of the way Dalits are being treated in India.
Vemula’s letter to the University vice-chancellor, his suicide letter and the protests that followed brought to light that casteism in India was still a reality overlooked and often dismissed by many. He had asked the chancellor to make “ropes available to rooms of all Dalit students” and “to give poison to them at admission” instead of the humiliation that Dalits faced in the community. In his suicide letter he wrote:
“The value of a man was reduced to his immediate identity and nearest possibility. To a vote. To a number. To a thing.”
His words expose how his identity was reduced to a single thing, being a Dalit, and not that he wanted to be like Carl Sagan and explore nature. These incidents have just added more questions to the debate: of “lack of pluralism,” “nationalism” and “treatment of minorities.”
In both cases chapters of ABVP, a BJP affiliated student group, opposed the rights of other student groups to voice their opinions, to gather and to demonstrate peacefully. These are rights protected by the Indian constitution and are crucial to the functioning of a democracy so large and diverse.
Additionally, in both incidents local members of the BJP party supported the ABVP in its protests. These incidents showcase right-wing Hindutva elements within the BJP and student groups allied to it that have often tried to silence opinions that differ from their own. Their tactics aim to ambush and stifle opposing views that include farcical police cases, private complaints, social intimidation and legal petitions.
This is evidenced in the case of the arrest of GN Saibaba, Professor at Delhi University, who was arrested due to alleged maoists links. In support of Mr. G.N. Saibaba, Ms. Arundhati Roy, a renowned author and activists, faced criminal charges for writing an article in Outlook Magazine that interfered with the administration of justice. Many including former Chairman of the Press Council of India, Markandey Katju, failed to “see how it (Roy’s Article) could be regarded as contempt of court in a democratic country.” The intolerance towards dissent or freedom of expression are not just through formal criminal charges like in the case of Ms. Roy but also through an intolerant rhetoric by elected representatives.
Several members of BJP reacted with hostile comments towards actor Aamir Khan when he spoke out against rising intolerance in India at Ramnath Goenka Excellence in Journalism Awards ceremony. BJP MP Yogi Adityanath declared that "If Aamir Khan wants to leave the country he can go. The population of the country will come down." Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, Vice President of BJP and Minister of State Parliamentary Affair disregarded Khan’s opinion by saying, "neither is he going anywhere nor will we let him go." Naqvi continued to dismiss Khan’s comments by assuming that Khan was “under someone else’s influence.” These comments were followed by Khan being berated on Twitter. Some claimed his comments were spreading communal behavior and fear in India. It is not the first time that a public figure has been shut down for speaking out.
A leading Indian thinker and president of Center for Policy Research in New Delhi, Pratap Bhanu Mehta has been very vocal about his discontent with the current government being the primary institution responsible for “threatening democracy.” Mehta argues that in the case of the arrest of Kanhaiya Kumar, essentially on the terms of being anti-national, is a trend by the state to create an atmosphere of “patriotism” that requires no tolerance to any dissenting thought.
Mehta is not just criticising the role of the state in the arrest of Kanhaiya Kumar in violating the law of sedition, but, also the use of power by the state “to crush thinking.” He called it “malign” and “politically stupid.”
Mehta is not alone in calling out the government in this case or previous ones. Soli Sorabjee, in an article in the Hindu, wrote that the “right to dissent and tolerance of dissent are sine qua non of a liberal democratic society,” a couple of years ago and has been steadfast in that belief with these current incidents. Mr. Mehta differs slightly in his analysis that there is no room for speculation in this case as there was no “immediate instigation to violence” that is part of the IPC 124A referred to as the law of sedition. The real threat to democracy is the government’s suppression of free speech and to gather peacefully.
The “immediate instigation to violence” is actually coming from the opposition to the JNU students protest. A video taken by Jagat Sohail, student at Delhi School of Economics, shows a group of students chanting threat of murder to students of JNU who gathered on the anniversary of the hanging of Afzal Guru. The Indian government under the leadership of Mr. Modi has tried to promote economic optimism, growth and development as its primary agenda, however, in the past two years the national debate has reverted back to social issues of freedom of expression, freedom of religion and some have said even the “freedom of thought” is under siege.
Elements within the RSS, VHP, ABVP allied with the BJP have been at the front and center of what Sorabjee terms as “the menace of intolerance.” A poll taken by Times of India revealed that 62 per cent of the country believes that the “Sangh Parivar hotheads are adversely affecting the development agenda.” This intolerance may prove to be quite abrasive to the movement towards economic growth for India that Modi intends to be the champion of.
The national debate surrounding the recent JNU and Hyderabad University incidents are around the intolerance towards dissent and what it means to be Indian. Kanhaiya Kumar urges in his speech that the Sangh Parivar and groups like ABVP should not be the ones to justify patriotism or certify nationalism in India. He spoke up against “institutional violence” and appealed for the preservation of “constitutional rights” for the citizens of India. This surge of debate around these concepts are not new in the national arena and definitely not new since Narendra Modi took office.
There has been a constant battle between secularists and the government, from the beef ban to the “Award Wapsi” by the intelligentsia in India. This has now reached the doorstep of educational institutions where debate is not only necessary, it should be encouraged even if it is to debate the “hanging of Afzal Guru.” Being the world’s largest democracy and having had a national movement not 70 years ago must live up to the ideals of secularism, pluralism and inclusivity on which it was built upon.
Therefore, it is the responsibility of the Modi government to challenge fringe, extremist elements in society in order to uphold the rights of its citizens to dissent that will only strengthen democracy, not weaken it.
This article was first published through Daily O.