Kanhaiya Kumar and Co charged with sedition: Will the Indian media call out the farce of the JNU case this time?

The filing of charges against JNU student leader Kanhaiya Kumar, Umar Khalid, Anirban Bhattacharya and others in the 9 February, 2016 case, on counts of sedition, rioting, unlawful assembly and forgery has made headlines across media outlets. Only the BJP ostensibly stands to reap political benefits by turning a matter of democratic dissent and ideological critique into a matter of national security — a topic on which Indian citizens tend to blindly trust and obey their government.

The apparent aim of the government in introducing the chargesheet now is to polarise the polity where social engineering does not work, and to place itself in a favourable position politically as patriots safeguarding the nation from anti-national elements — to capture the nationalist tag and give it a saffron tint right before the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. The fact that the government has failed at delivering employment, failed the farmers, come under the cloud of scams, committed overreach in public institutions, failed to curb inflation, encouraged a deterioration of law and order, harmed communal and inter-caste relations, and has exaggerated its achievements in terms of welfare has given the BJP a lot to worry about.

If the tide turns, so will the flow of corporate donations. Shifting the agenda to "nation under threat" is the BJP’s attempt to shore up a voter base in states where it recently lost elections, and in states where it had done spectacularly well in 2014, but cannot expect to achieve the same results. In short, this refers to such states as Rajasthan, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Delhi and Maharashtra. The nationalist garb is likely to be a smokescreen for the goonda politics of the saffron mob during the election.

With the outlet for outrage provided by Hardik Pandya's comments fading and The Accidental Prime Minister flopping at the box office, the news cycle needs to be diverted, while the government passes controversial bills in Parliament in a hurry despite its comfortable majority.

Kanhaiya Kumar and Co charged with sedition: Will the Indian media call out the farce of the JNU case this time?

File image of Kanhaiya Kumar. Reuters.

The statements by Umar, Kanhaiya and others on the chargesheet being filed — while important, are of little use when it comes to the charges themselves — are muted responses perhaps restrained by legal advice. They sought to point at the timing and allude to political motivations. If not convicted by the time of the election, the continuing charges will have little bearing on Kanhaiya's prospects of winning from the Begusarai Lok Sabha seat.

It is beyond reasonable doubt that the timing was politically motivated, and that the contents were kept on standby. Incidentally, much of the preliminary evidence brought forth in the chargesheet is the same evidence that was considered flimsy enough for Kanhaiya, Umar and Anirban to receive bail back in 2016. These include the doctored videos, phone records indicating communication between the accused and witness depositions. There appears to be little in terms of new developments that any unbiased observer of the case did not already know – that none of the videos showed any of the unmasked accused shouting anti-national slogans (including by Umar and Anirban), that these slogans may not have come up in any verified undoctored video, that Kanhaiya's involvement with the "Country Without A Post Office" programme was non-existent and that he only arrived to resolve the situation in his capacity as JNUSU president, and that overthrowing the State was not the stated outlook of the programme. Biased and negative media coverage was responsible for most of these misconceptions.

The negative media narrative after the 9 February incident was determined less by the evidence and more by the irresponsible statements of the then-police commissioner BS Bassi and those of Home Minister Rajnath Singh, including "insights" based on a fake Twitter account attributed to Hafiz Saeed.

In fact, considering the chargesheet was not filed for three years, the delay itself should have persuaded the bench to throw out the case long ago. The backbone of the chargesheet, hence, is the set of witness statements, most of them likely to be from the ABVP cadre — biased and rehearsed to paint and implicate the accused as seditious anti-nationals, especially when many onlookers (the programme was located in a busy junction with lots of passersby) question whether secessionist slogans were shouted at all.

No rioting took place. There was sloganeering and counter-sloganeering between two groups. Hosting evening programs in common spaces in JNU has never been considered unlawful assembly, nor have spontaneous protests. The charge of forgery involves cross-examining the accused and only then it can be established.

The prosecution appears less interested in examining the role of the JNU vice-chancellor, Mamidala Jagadesh Kumar, in ushering in the police before he gave the guards a chance to control the situation, or the role of the ABVP in getting the programme cancelled with ridiculous administrative ease, in bringing in TV crews beforehand and briefing them in a biased manner, and in orchestrating mob aggression, doctoring videos and revealing vested interests in witness statements on their part.

The Najeeb Ahmed case comes to mind. The JNU vice-chancellor took no action in the crucial initial stages, and, on the side of the State, investigative agencies have not thoroughly interrogated the ABVP members involved (no lie-detector tests), nor did they made a serious effort to retrieve Najeeb until the court's directive much later. In addition, the legal process of the case itself was protracted and barely moved at a snail's pace. The Rohith Vemula case too, was sabotaged by the arms of the State.

As somewhat predicted by this author after Judge Pratibha Rani had granted bail to Kanhaiya in 2016, the case was far from over. That the court itself may not be eventually favourable was alluded to in the bail judgment itself, wherein the judge quoted a patriotic song, restricted the accused's political activities, spoke of anti-nationalists as a diseased limb that must be amputated, said that not all statements can be protected under freedom of speech (even though at that stage there was no evidence of anti-national slogans), charged the whole JNU community as morally responsible for the alleged actions of a few students and even called the programme an insult to the army jawans toiling and dying on the cold border.

In recent years, vice-chancellors of central universities have become tools of the BJP Union government, with the interests of their universities and students not a major priority — as seen, among other examples, by the actions of University of Hyderabad's Appa Rao in the Vemula case, of the Benaras Hindu University vice-chancellor during the women’s movement against sexual harassment, and of the JNU vice-chancellor during the 9 February case, the Najeeb case and the matter of compulsory attendance.

While the case against Kanhaiya and others was (as is now) still subjudice, the JNU vice-chancellor formed a High-Level Enquiry Committee that handed out punishments ranging from fines to suspensions and rustication against the accused and several other political activists. The students went on a hunger strike and finally it was the court that stayed the punishments handed out, and in October 2017, demanded a fresh inquiry that the JNU HLEC panel turned into a farce by applying the same charges and punishments in July 2018. In short, the vice-chancellor was more keen on punishing the students rather than following the court proceedings — another seemingly political decision.

The original sedition law was British, passed in 1870, and used to jail nationalists. From the start, this law was a political tool of the colonial State, and had little to do with waging war on the nation. Like President's Rule, land acquisition laws, and UAPA-POTA, the post-colonial State chose to retain colonial relics as instruments of authoritarianism.

That sedition and similar laws are being abused by the state can be seen in the FIRs filed in the Elgar Parishad case on activists Sudha Bhardwaj, Arun Perriera, Vara Vara Rao and others, and in the fact that people like Gauri Lankesh were branded as anti-national before and after their assassination, so as to almost justify the murder in the public eye. The recent sedition FIRs against Assam leader Akhil Gogoi, scholar Hiren Gohain and others for opposing the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, when none of them had encouraged secession in their speeches at site of the alleged sedition. The street violence too, was perpetrated by Asom Gana Parishad and AASU members. The fact that over the years the Supreme Court has often quashed sedition charges does not seem to deter the BJP regime much.

Justice can be manipulated in different ways. One can recall four justices of the Supreme Court last year coming out against then Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra on how he had total power over determining rosters and benches, hinting at how favourable judgments can be extracted depending on the composition of the bench. Closeness to a political party may have a similar impact at the state-level.

JNU politics have typically been Centre-Left, and it is usually right-wing extremists who interpret the liberal, progressive culture of the campus as radical. Studying, interpreting and questioning the history of the actions of the Indian State is far removed from waging war against it. If a critique of the policies of the party in power is a crime, then the law is perhaps in irresponsible hands and only elections can change that. Further, only regime change can unseat political stooges as vice-chancellors of public universities. However, every democracy needs an autonomous, objective and accountable media. The question remains: The media wholeheartedly complied with BJP talking points on JNU in 2016 (regardless of factual accuracy) — will it blindly do so this time too?

The author is a PhD scholar at Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, and is a former JNUSU presidential candidate.

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Updated Date: Jan 16, 2019 19:15:26 IST

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