By Tarushikha Sarvesh
The Jawaharlal Nehru University incident—involving the alleged ‘anti-India’ slogans by students, which in turn provoked extreme reactions by the Central government in the form of a sedition charge on the JNUSU president (Kanhaiya Kumar) is a perfect example of the mockery of India’s legal system. It wouldn’t be wrong to say that both the parties are feeding on the lack of knowledge of legal provisions by a majority of our countrymen. In an ideal world, such sensitive issues should have been handled with much more care.
The main and overhyped issue in this debate was nationalism. To begin with: every government needs to understand that nationalistic sentiments cannot be imposed without preparing a reasonable ground for it in terms of basic facilities to enhance human agency — including the platforms and right to protest. The debates on TV media are rife with terms and phrases like “freedom of expression”, “misuse of free speech”, “sedition laws” (and their misuse), and so on.
A basic question is: What makes someone anti-national? If the state is unable to provide inclusive citizenship, in turn failing to imbue nationalist sentiments, isn’t the state itself to be blamed for? The state has to address the discontentment: Quick-fixes like putting people behind the bars would only exacerbate this discontentment.
For democracies to flourish they have to face the citizens’ disenchantment with the state. The state is not a monolithic entity; the strength of a state is revealed by its reactions: a state becomes visible through its symbols, its institutions and its reactions to the discontent. Taking extremely repressive actions without sufficient evidence reveals the intolerance of the state; in doing so, it also risks misguiding its citizen on many pressing issues. Stopping debates and nipping discontent restricts the opportunity of much needed conceptual clarity on various issues.
A student is not merely an individual whose responsibility ends with attending lectures: all good universalities everywhere impart all-round development, which includes understanding and participating in the political events local and global. A student can be many things at once — a learner, an activist, a debater, a thinker, a future statesman. (Ironically, the present NDA government too has many JNU alumni serving at crucial posts.) We problematise the idea of a student by perceiving politics in separation to society.
In this case, JNU, famed for its vibrant debating culture and its powerful students' agency, became a victim of two diametrically opposite ideologies. Students' radicalism has met with even stronger state radicalism in the current situation, not entirely surprising since Left has always been Sangh Parivar’s ideological bête-noire. This incident gave the state an opportunity to un-apologetically crush the dissent from the opposite block. That said, one cannot deny that radicalism of any sort spoils the cause and derails the process of social justice.
In Development as Freedom, Amartya Sen talks about freedom and capacity-building of citizens in general and students in particular. According to Sen, some of the most common sources of what he calls “unfreedom” are tyranny, intolerance and over activity of the repressive state: these are huge obstacles in the development process of any society. The Narendra Modi-led BJP government got its largest mandate of last 30 years on the plank of development. It’s high time Modi realizes that development would come about only if these basic criteria of development are also adhered to.
The author is a faculty member at the Centre for Women Studies at Aligarh Muslim University.