By Shishir Tripathi
At the Periyar hostel in JNU on Sunday night, students set aside the politics being played over the arrest of Kanhaiya Kumar, the student union president. They organised a cultural night and music from the North-East filled the air. At regular intervals, the master of ceremony called from the stage, “Tej se bolo kaun hai hum” and the crowd responded with equal zeal “Bharatwasi Bharatwasi”.
Just few hours before the cultural night, the campus had witnessed an almost two-kilometre-long human chain demanding the release of the Kanhaiya Kumar. It was preceded by a press conference by the JNU teachers’ association condemning the arrest of Kumar. This face of the campus stood in sharp contrast to what has been playing out on television screens since 9 February. The footage on television showed some students of the varsity raising anti-India slogans, calling for the annihilation of the nation state.
On Sunday, the real JNU spirit was in full flow. While many students with a Left-leaning opined that at no cost anti-national activities should be defended, many Right-leaning students said the state went overboard and overreacted in arresting Kanhaiya and booking him under the sedition law. An interesting unification among the students, irrespective of their ideological positions on another point, was noticeable too: all of them are disturbed over the branding of this ‘great institution as anti-national’.
“This is purely absurd. A little understanding of sedition laws clearly shows that there is a caveat in invoking it; there must be direct incitement of violence, which is not the case here,” said Prosenjit, a student.
Shakti, a final year PhD student who was present at all three events, had this to say: “There is a principle in ecology that says the more diverse the ecosystem, the better are the chances of it being more stable. In JNU diverse viewpoints have existed but it never created any ugly conflict. All the differences remained at the level of thought and sometimes culminated in angry debates.”
He added, “We cannot deny the fact that there have been numerous incidents which can be seen as anti-national, but they are nothing more than rhetoric. Sedition charges are indeed an overreaction.”
Rajneesh, a PhD student at department of Sanskrit, raised an important point. In 2007, the presidential candidate of Bahujan Student Front (BSF) released a pamphlet during the presidential debate which demonised Ram. A major altercation took place and that was the last election held under the aegis of JNU administration. But no action was taken against any student. The Indian Penal Code (IPC) has provisions to book a person for hurting religious sentiments but JNU has a very vibrant culture where extremely hostile viewpoints exist in harmony, at least at the surface level.”
He added, “See we also read Valmiki Ramayana and analyse roles of different characters critically. But that is academic work. But when you use a political stage for the same conflict there’s bound to be trouble. You have to respect sentiments." Another student makes an important assertion. “In 1989, when hundreds of protesting students were killed by Chinese army at Tiananmen Square, JNU students, irrespective of their political affiliation, criticised it. The fact is that we might have very strong ideological stance which, in many cases, are extremely anti-state but we never defend which cannot be and should not be defended.”
There can be no contention that JNU has been the ground for fierce debates. “Severe criticism of the state and challenge to all settled notions of right and wrong has been the legacy of JNU. It has always idolised revolutionaries like Che Guevara, Mao, Lenin and Marx but when these figures were replaced by the likes of Afzal Guru and Maqbool Bhatt, then we too feel that something has gone wrong," said the student.