New Delhi: The criminalisation of dissent, what the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) students are now facing, has existed for over two decades outside Delhi and on the countryside.
“This criminalisation of dissent and curbing of voice have now come to the elite circle, whereas it has already been there for over two decades in different states. An innocent common man who has never, ever been to any police station, one day finds himself being slapped with several criminal charges,” said senior journalist and founding editor of the People's Archive of Rural India, P Sainath, to a gathering of more than 500 students and a few faculty members at JNU campus on Friday evening.
In a bid to express its strength of unity and solidarity and garner outside support to counter the ‘sedition charge and anti-national branding’ against its students, the JNU community comprising teachers and students have come up with an innovative approach — open air classroom. Every evening, students gather at the backside of JNU’s administrative block to listen to lectures by experts from outside and in-house faculty members on nationalism and other issues.
Sainath’s lecture was a part of it, which gradually attracted a large crowd. During noon, when the news of rejection of bail plea of JNU Students’ Union (JNUSU) president Kanhaiya Kumar reached the campus, not many students were visible and whatever small numbers could be seen were scattered across the campus. At around 3.30 pm, less than 100 students, including JNUSU members, gathered to address the media. But, within an hour, students from different hostels and classes gathered to listen to Sainath, who spoke on growing inequality and increase in urban-rural divide in the society due to “socio-religious and economy-market fundamentalism”.
Citing examples of cases in Odisha, Chhattisgarh and other southern states, he said, “There were 91 cases filed against an Adivasi couple who refused to part away with their land for a Tata project in Kalinganagar in Odisha. Similarly, a 78-year-old woman was slapped with criminal charges of attempt to murder policemen. We all know the POSCO case well. What you face here today, is a common tactic elsewhere. Now the government is an alliance of socio-religious fundamentalism and economy-market fundamentalism due to which there is unbelievable inequality in every field.”
Citing Socio-Economic Caste Census data, Sainath said, “90% of the total rural household earns less than Rs 10,000 per annum. India ranks fifth in dollar billionaires list, where as in Human Development Index, it’s ranking is 135, Sri Lanka, Vietnam are much above us. There’s a chaos in every front. Beef and cattle slaughter issues led to the collapse of India’s indigenous Kolhapuri chappal (footwear) industry and as a result, Dalits are suffering. No one understands the role of cattle in rural economy and it’s the fundamentalism that is overpowering.”
Asking students for solidarity, Sainath, also a JNU alumnus, added, “You are living in a period that is witnessing greatest inequality and rise of fundamentalism. Before getting better, it’ll get a lot worse. It depends on how we move ahead and counter adversities holding hands together. I’m here for the solidarity of students. JNU’s diversity taught us to rise above individualism and unite against the state.”
Giving a call to students to fight for their right and not violence, IIMC professor Rajesh Pathak said, “It reminds me of our days when I was president of BHU students union. The slogan was Danga nahi, Rozgar chahiye (We don’t need riots, we need employment).”
On the outside walls of the administrative building, the JNU students have pasted posters of Gandhi, Nehru, Tagore, Bhagat Singh and Ambedkar with their memorable quotes and the solidarity messages that JNUSU has received from associations and unions of academic institutions abroad.
On rejection of bail to Kanhaiya, JNUSU vice president, Shehla Rashid said, “We were expecting Kanhaiya Kumar to be back on campus, but didn’t happen. We’re sad, but we have complete faith in the Supreme Court and judiciary. But, simultaneously, those who subverted the judicial process, like Vikram Chauhan and others, were felicitated and students are behind the bar.”
“We appeal to the judiciary of this country to re-examine the sedition law, as its misuse is widespread and there have been no convictions under this draconian law since 1960s. This means that this law exists only as a tool of intimidation and a weapon in the hands of the government to silence dissenting voices. The BJP government has been trying to hide its own failures and its ineptness to deal with Pathankot and other terror attacks, by drawing links between students and terrorist organizations. Besides this, we strongly condemn the police harassment of students from J&K on the pretext of their ‘verification’. Government must stop this witch-hunt,” added Rashid.