By Ajay Kumar
US Senator, J.William Fulbright once said, "in a democracy, dissent is an act of faith". Let us take that a step further, democracy itself is an act of faith. Democracy works because a citizen has faith that other citizens are open to persuasion via discussion and argument. This creates the marketplace of ideas, which through often heated public debate shape the destiny of a nation. The hallmark of India has been that she has maintained her democracy in the face of all odds. She has survived where those around her have fallen into a rabid disarray. But in order for the argument to take place, in order for democracy to work, it is imperative that we as citizens stop acting on outrage and begin acting on patriotism.
Every morning Indians everywhere, wake up, pour themselves a cup of tea pull their newspapers out and read about what's happening in their country. Those who do so at the tea stalls, often end up in heated debates over articles and ideas of the day. We are lucky, we live in a politically conscious society where we can debate great issues like the budget, national security, nationalist values and everything else. We create a safe space for this by pouring a cup of tea and sharing it. A discussion over chai seldom ever gets violent, they can get very heated but it seldom gets violent. It is often said that it is in India's tea stalls, that it's democracy actually comes alive. People of various backgrounds, views and cultures gather around a glass of tea and find a common moment of safe human space.
The Jawaharlal Nehru University is no different from the rest of the country when it comes to this, except in one aspect, universities like these are the 'proving' ground for the next generation's faith in our democracy. — and this is why student politics is vital to the nation's future.
It is here, in our universities that our nation's young people begin their initial engagement with our political system. Through small petitions like a change in hostel timings and mess menus the next generation begins to express faith in their fellow citizen. The faith that makes democracy work, the faith that their fellow citizens will be open to reason and persuasion.
It a moment of immense pride for a nation, when its young people on campuses begin to get engaged in the political process especially insofar as it concerns issues of the day or issues of national importance. Like every nation on campus too you will have various polarising view points, the process and purpose of education is to learn to reconcile these view points through democratic processes.
Despite their views, most of which I find extremely distasteful, the students of JNU through their protests and meetings continue to re-assert their faith in our democratic process every time they choose to air their demands and grievances instead of resorting to violence.
Just as the rest of the country does everyday when they discuss the issues of the day with their fellow citizens over tea in the mornings. History makes apparent the consequence of dis-engaging with the process merely because the views therein are distasteful to the nationalist appetite.
It has cost India, the Kashmiri, the Adivasi and now India stands to lose her next generation. If as citizens we feel the need to send men in Khaki down to every campus, every time the Government or the public at large hears something it would rather not at a tea stall, it is us who are defeating Indian Democracy and not them.
It is indeed a matter of grave national concern that our young people at JNU have chosen to express themselves the way they have. This shows that as a nation we are now, more polarised than we have ever been in the recent past. The climate in India right now is one where a person is either a 'sickular', 'sanghi', a 'pseudo liberal' or a 'cunning brahmin'. The safety of the space a discussion over a cup of tea provides, is lost.
We don't take tea together anymore but we insist on drinking tea amongst ourselves — tea stalls have become mere echo chambers and each time an idea is repeated the more powerful and violent it gets. There is a complete lack of engagement when it concerns the issues and the rhetoric has shifted to one of jingoism. On the left with their calls for Revolution and with the right for their renewed calls of cultural national integration, and suddenly we find that the tea stalls are no longer bustling — they have been silenced.
Everyone is afraid to speak.
No person becomes anti-national merely for expressing a view on an issue, no matter how distasteful it may seem to the rest of the nation. In fact, the real anti-nationals are the one's who are trying to shut JNU down and break the spirit of their students. If they really loved their country, they'd be horrified that its young people, this nation's future felt this way about it. They would be at campus canteens across the country, engaging with them and making the argument for India.
Our Constitution establishes India as a constitutional democratic republic. The sole purpose of the Constitution of India is to create a democratic society, where a citizen, so long as he uses peaceful means is free to lobby and advocate for its complete and utter overthrow.
If India is to survive as a nation and march forward on her destiny , the patriotic response to this advocacy coming form our students, must be engagement through discussion and argument and must not be the strong arm of the state.
If the nation's young people feel the need to use distasteful rhetoric to express themselves, be it both on the right and the left, then perhaps it is evidence of a broader national failure to engage with the political, social and economic aspirations of the youth. The students at our universities are not children, almost all of them are over the age of majority and have the right to peaceful revolution via the ballot box. If the rest of the country does not engage with them, the future, will not engage with the country.
These students should be allowed to protest and call for anything they want so long as it is peaceful. The State and patriots should be able to make the argument as to why they are wrong instead of seeking to militarise a campus and set up a nation wide university gestapo (see UGC surveillance guidelines).
Suppressing dissent is not the way forward. It will just keep India in this mess longer.
Patriotism is making an argument for the existence of one's country. It is the decision to engage with people who think otherwise. It is articles, discussions, debates and protests. It is using every peaceful means available at one's disposal to participate in the process. If getting a cup of tea with young India, is harder than arresting them trumped up charges of sedition, then it is clear that somewhere there has been a collective national failure that has resulted in this present situation.
Strangely enough, this government already might have just the prefect way, to engage with people who think otherwise. It's through this mode of engagement, they won over the electorate. Perhaps it's time the Prime Minster had a Chai Pe Chacha at JNU. Everyone sits down over a cup of tea and hashes their disagreements out. I remember during the campaign, a Chai per Charcha was held at over 1000 tea stalls in the country. Maybe it's time to shift it to the campus canteen? Let's talk instead of locking people up. We owe it to ourselves as a nation to talk about these issues.
There can never be sedition against one's own nation. In a citizen-democracy the idea that any speech can be seditious itself is a fundamental contradiction. There can be treason yes, there can be waging war yes, but there can never be sedition. Just like one doesn't throw family members out for bringing things up at at tea time, we cannot lock them up for sedition when they say something distasteful.
If we are to remain a family, we need to have the room to speak.
The author is an advocate at the High Court, Bombay. He is currently a counsel at Ashlar Law.