By Shishir Tripathi
American novelist Harper Lee who died on 19 February wrote in her greatly admired novel To Kill a Mockingbird that, “People generally see what they look for, and hear what they listen for.”
The hero of the novel Atticus Finch also told us how to be objective in assessing an event; by deleting the adjectives so that we would have the facts.
What happened in the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in last two weeks following the alleged raising of ‘anti-national’ slogans by some students of the university and outsiders is marred by the collective failure of the university administration and Delhi police to ‘delete objectives’ and knowingly, unknowingly, overlooking the facts.
On the day following the arrest of the JNUSU president Kanhaiya Kumar, a visit to the campus confirmed a wider consensus on two issues: the arrest of Kumar under sedition charges and the malicious branding of the university. Majority of the students who spoke on the issue opposed both of it.
Ten days after that, the situation remains same. Most of the students are backing Kanhaiya and a palpable angst can be seen against the branding of the university as ‘hub of anti-national- activities'.
On 15 February at the Periyar hostel in JNU, slogans of “Tej se bolo kaun hai hum ? Bharatwasi Bharatwasi” was echoing. It was the same campus which was much in news for its anti-India sloganeering just three days ago. When it came to raising of anti-India slogans, students opposed the move in unison.
On Monday evening as the possible surrender of the Umar Kahlid and other four students were being deliberated upon, it was clear that the five students did not have the support of entire student fraternity as in Kanhaiya’s case. The administrative block which saw the crowd swelling only as the lecture on nationalism started, hardly displayed full-hearted support to Khalid and his four comrades.
In the din of ‘jump to judgement’ and 'brand them anti-national' race, what was left behind was to understand that students see the entire episode as series of events and have different take on them.
First, the raising of anti-India slogans: Most of the students rejected and opposed such sloganeering but at the same time casted aspersions on the authenticity of the video. They also called for not mixing up the issues and seeing them in particular contexts. “Raising slogans in favour of Afzal Guru and Kasab is different. A lot of students here comes from Kashmir and have reason and context to support Afzal Guru but I don’t think anyone can justify any support to a terrorist like Kasab,” said a student. Two of the accused students Anant Prakash Narayan and Rama Naga, while speaking to Firstpost, several times stressed the fact that they were nowhere shown in the video raising slogans but were still booked under sedition and named in the FIR. They reacted sharply when asked by a news channel about their probable surrender, “We are not criminals or terrorist that we are being asked to surrender”.
Second, pressing of sedition charges: When out of their political mould; talking like a fellow students, even those with clear cut right wing leaning and some of the ABVP supporters felt that slapping of sedition charges against Kanhaiya was a bit too much. However there seemed a clear divide when role of democratic students union (DSU) and other accused student were concerned.
Third, branding of JNU: As one of the student remarked, fringe elements and denigrated free-floaters are the real trouble makers; the aim should be to target and weed them out, not clamping down on campus politics. Students felt that any kind of malicious branding would affect their career and called for show of restrain by media.
It does not require the smarts of an articulate public intellectual to understand where the government faltered in dealing with the JNU issue. Sitting at the canteen at the administrative block with a cup of tea with a research scholar from any of the schools in JNU is enough to understand why sloganeering by some students escalated to a standoff between the students and the government.
“As the videos of alleged sloganeering surfaced, the university administration should have investigated the matter through an internal process before allowing the police to arrest the Kanhaiya Kumar. If found guilty, then the future course of action with government authorities and police could have been deliberated upon. The media should have shown some restraint before jumping the guns and branding the students as 'anti-national' and casting grave aspersions on the secular and nationalist culture of the university. The crisis could have been avoided if objectives like ‘anti-national' had been divorced from personal bias and prejudice. The police would have been able to appreciate that evidence for such conclusions was yet to be verified”, said a student of SIS.
But then as Lee had cautioned long years ago that we see what we want to see.