By Sayan Chatterjee
Such has been the intensity of debates about the standoff at Jawaharlal Nehru University that a significant section of the population has departed from its conventional TV viewing habits to repeatedly visit 24/7 news channels to catch the latest, “Breaking News”. The interminable debates and discussions on TV seem to have presented three main issues. They are: does raising anti-national slogans by students in a university amount to sedition, was the police negligent in their response to some lawyers and an MLA manhandling student supporters and journalists, and has the president of JNUSU Kanhaiya Kumar been rightly accused or has he been victimised?
It is the first of these three issues that is of considerable interest and deserves to be dealt with at some length. Therefore it may be proper to deal with the other two and then proceed to address the first one. Should the police have moved swiftly and arrested the lawyers who were engaging in those scuffles in the court premises? It could have made a charged atmosphere uglier. It could have diverted attention from the main charge of sedition. Police action in university premises, something carried out in only rarest of cases, would have been lumped together with police action in court premises and suddenly the focus would become police high handedness and insensitivity. After all both the student community and the legal fraternity insist that they would deal with the misdemeanours of any member or members their tribe on their own and through their own systems. They tend to repel interventions from the outside. So let the bar council take the first call. The police may proceed to tackle penal offences at a slower pace, observing all procedural niceties under the law so that the errant lawyers cannot bounce back as victims. It is a strategic approach. As regards Kanhaiya being accused correctly or not, that matter is now for the court to decide. His case is one of a question of fact. Did he raise those anti-national slogans or, as is being claimed from some quarters, was he trying to dissuade the perpetrators? That is to say, as the case pans out will he be a witness or a co-accused?
Raising anti-national slogans amounts to sedition. That is the case. In this case the slogans were raised by students. The slogans eulogised Afzal Guru, condemned to death (his execution was ordered by the Supreme Court for his role in the attack on Parliament). These slogans promised that Afzal would be “produced in every household”, that Kashmir would be free and that India would be destroyed. These are the slogans that are raised in downtown Srinagar after Friday prayers.
Who decides that an activity is anti-national and amounts to sedition? The answer is a straightforward one, the courts. In India it is the state alone that prosecutes and so it is the police that moves the court. Therefore the issue is whether the police have been reasonable in invoking the charge of sedition. A plain reading of Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code, the section dealing with sedition, does not help. It is a colonial provision where opposing an act of government amounts to sedition. In short the provision negates dissent and a democratic culture. We are therefore left with the Supreme Court’s view that the action has to be both anti-national as well as having a violent content which includes incitement to violence.
Is criticising the death penalty anti-national? Certainly not. Does disagreeing with or criticising a Supreme Court judgement amount to being anti-national? Again the answer would be in the negative. So protesting against the hanging of Afzal Guru is not anti-national and therefore not seditious. However the sloganeering does not stop there. It goes on to proclaim that every house shall produce an Afzal Guru, the man who was executed because he actively assisted in the attack on Indian Parliament. And what will all these Afzal Gurus do? They will break Kashmir away from the Indian state and also destroy the Indian state and break it up into bits and pieces, God willing. That is what those slogans said. Not only were they anti-national but they were also a direct challenge to the Indian state. No administration can afford to ignore them.
If this be so then why doesn’t the administration take similar action against those raising such slogans in Srinagar? Are they now going to move against these elements and slap them with sedition charges? After all, the law is the same everywhere and all are equally liable under the law. And if not then why single out JNU students? There is always a method in the action taken by the state – at least we all hope there is. It has to be recognised that we are in a proxy war with Pakistan over Kashmir since the late 1980s. The method adopted is to send across terrorists to cause disruption and mayhem. It is the strategy of death through a thousand cuts. It succeeds in some measure because the terrorists have active support of militants in the Valley and passive support from sections of the populace -- the sort who raise these slogans in Srinagar. The security establishment in Kashmir is stretched to deal with the existing situation. The last thing that is required is to open up another front by moving sedition charges against the slogan raisers. In the context of the troubles in Kashmir they are a lesser threat and can be ignored.
The same attitude cannot be taken in Delhi and other cities in India. The protests in Srinagar which have been going on for quite some time have reached a saturation point in terms of propaganda value and generating sympathy for the militants’ cause. Those who plan and strategise these things would be delighted if Srinagar-style agitations get replicated in major cities in India. The propaganda value for their cause would be unimaginably huge. And what better place to carry this out than a prestigious Central university in the capital itself with its energetic student community idealistic, anti-establishment, full of zeal and enthusiasm, who could easily be manipulated to lap up the rhetoric while ignoring the substance; another victory in the proxy war. Besides the propaganda would provide a platform or focus for likeminded persons to come together. From this pool some may be inclined to go much beyond mere sloganeering in the cause of this proxy war. For the state this move has to be nipped in the bud quickly and with a heavy hand. It has to be stamped out before it assumes menacing proportions. Hence the charge of sedition.
But these are students. Students are supposed to be non conformists. They are supposed to rebel. They should be treated differently. When we hear this we think of students who are fresh out of school. They are impressionable and yet to get over the intoxication of the freedom of university life as opposed to the regulations and restrictions of school life that they have recently left behind. The twin poisons of corruption and compromise have yet to enter their lives. However the same cannot be said of those who have crossed over to the world of realpolitik, with its machinations and manipulations of party politics. There is little by way of innocence there and these people know where their self interest lie and the paths they are required to traverse to achieve their political goals. In short they are in the game of power where they manipulate support and are open to being manipulated. And quite a few of them do not finish their studies and move on. They get into this and that activity and manage to stay on as students right into their mid-thirties and beyond. There is little reason to treat this lot differently. This, however, does not mean that the police should enter the campus on any pretext. Police intervention in education institutions should be the rarest of event. Does the present incident qualify as such an event? It does because it seeks to bring the Kashmir issue now largely confined to the state into the cities and towns of India and thus expand the scope and reach of the ongoing proxy war.
To round off let us examine very briefly the propaganda content of the Pakistan side in this ongoing proxy war. In the context of the Kashmir problem, which is never clearly defined and means different things to different people at different times, three words keep popping up — plebiscite, self determination and azadi. For the young and the impressionable, certain facts need to be stated with respect to all three. The condition that was laid down for holding a plebiscite, and we are talking here of 1948, is that Pakistan must first vacate aggression. It did not do so and has not done so till date. That is why there is an entity called Pakistan Occupied Kashmir. Second, the right to vote in a plebiscite cannot become an inheritable right in perpetuity. Third, the majority seceded from the Pakistan of 1948 and has become Bangladesh, a secular country recognised as an independent nation by Pakistan. So Pakistan itself has abandoned the two-nation theory, that Hindus and Muslims of the subcontinent are two separate nations, the basis on which it was created and the premise on which it urged plebiscite in 1948.
The self determination and azadi bit needs to be dealt with together. India and Pakistan are successor states of British India as it existed in 1947. How these states are to be formed is laid down in the India Independence Act, a legislation enacted in the Mother Parliament. About one third of India at that time comprised princely states. The state of Jammu and Kashmir was one of these princely states. The rulers of the princely states were required to accede to either India or Pakistan. The Maharaja of Kashmir acceded to India. There was no way an erstwhile princely state could become an independent country. This being so self determination becomes one of choosing one’s representative for both the state legislature and the Lok Sabha by participating in elections. This right is readily given to the people of the state. In the past there had been complaints of rigging during elections but after the elections of 2002 it has ceased to exist. Additionally unlike others the state enjoys a special status through Article 370 and has its own constitution and flag. As regards azadi, that is secession pure and simple. And what is the objective of this secession? It is to create a theocratic state where sharia will be in force. A state where the Hindus of Jammu and the Buddhists of Ladhak will live as kaffirs and the Shias of Gurez shall live as second class citizens. We can also well imagine the havoc that such a fundamentalist state would inflict on us perched as it would be on our doorstep and with no natural barrier in between.
Those who enthusiastically attend protest rallies where it is almost mandatory to decry the establishment should reflect on what they are protesting about. Strange as it may seem just sometimes it is the establishment that is entirely correct and stands on the higher moral ground.
The author is a retired Indian Administrative Service officer. He served for seven years as the deputy election commissioner, during which time he was tasked with conducting the 2002 elections to the J&K state legislature.