Nirmala Sitharaman's 'anti-India forces at JNU' remarks show disregard for the office of Minister of Defence
As a JNU alumna, Sitharaman may hold views about her alma mater, but as defence minister, she does not have the freedom to air her opinions in public
Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman's comments on the outcome of the elections to the Jawaharlal Nehru University Students’ Union (JNUSU) betray a most unfortunate disregard for the importance and dignity of the office she holds. The defence minister is a member of a constitutional body — the Union Cabinet (or council of ministers) that aids and advises the President of India, in whom the executive power of the Union is vested, in the discharge of his duties. The defence minister, in fact, has a special position, because the president is also the ‘supreme commander’ of the armed forces.
It would hardly be quixotic to posit that a position of such high responsibility enjoins upon its holder the concurrent responsibility to conduct oneself, in accordance with a basic sense of protocol, with a dignity befitting one’s rank and responsibility. Or, to put it simply, it does not behoove the defence minister to make public comments on the outcome of the election to the students’ union of a university, any university, at a public event.
Yet, Sitharaman did just that.
We shall get to the merits of what she told journalists at the Indian Women’s Press Corps on 18 September in just a bit. Before that, it must be pointed out that Sitharaman’s behaviour was precisely an example of how an incumbent of a high office ought not to behave. Sitharaman, to be sure, is a JNU alumna and was moreover an anti-Left student activist during the time she spent there. It can be presumed that she holds strong opinions about what happens at her alma mater, but as the defence minister she does not have the freedom to air her feelings or opinions in public — if the conventions sedulously cultivated for the conduct of parliamentary democracy are to have any value.
Then, of course, there is the small matter of what she actually said. It appears from media reports that there were two parts to what she said. First, she expressed ‘sadness’ for what has been happening at the university. "Election time arguments… are normal, but the kind of things which have happened in the last few years are not encouraging at all," she was reported as having said.
Second, she went on to say, "The way in which they have probably got led by forces which are anti-India… they are waging a war against India as their pamphlet (sic), their brochures say that. Such people leading the JNUSU or JNUSU members openly participating with such forces, you don’t need to hesitate to say anti-India therefore."
It has been necessary to quote parts of the statement because of their peculiar, if not absurd, character and because of their ambiguity. Before getting to those, it is necessary to explain why we think there are two parts to what Sitharaman said. It can reasonably be presumed that when she says that 'disagreements in connection with the elections are normal, but the kind of things that have been happening of late are not encouraging', she is talking about the spirit and manner in which student politics in general, and the elections in particular, are being conducted. That is one part of the burden of her song.
The other part is ideologically specific. Sitharaman is saying that 'they', presumably referring to the alliance of left groups that won the JNUSU elections, are being led by anti-Indian forces. This can be easily taken to mean that she is accusing the members of four Left parties of colluding with anti-Indian forces; in other words, they are guilty of treasonous conduct.
Logically, this presumption can be extended to all those students who voted for these treasonous parties. Given that there was a high turnout in the elections — at 67.8 percent, the highest in recent years and nine percentage points higher than last year's turnout — and that a majority of students voted to elect members of the Left alliance to every seat and office in the students' union, it must then be presumed that Sitharaman is in effect accusing a large number — say 35 percent — of JNU students of colluding with the forces of treason.
The use of the word 'treason' here is deliberate, since the incessant use of the word 'anti-national' by members of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), including ministers at the Centre and in the states, and affiliated Sangh parivar affiliates has emptied it of all meaning. Before following this train of thought, an ambiguity in Sitharaman’s statement, as reported, should be noticed. She says that 'their' pamphlets and brochures say they are waging war against the Indian State. It is not clear to whom exactly 'their' refers: Those with whom the Left forces in JNU are colluding, or the leftists themselves?
It would, of course, be futile to ask the defence minister for a clarification or demand that she produces for public examination this impugned literature with an explanation about its provenance.
To return to these most unfortunate allegations, made practically impromptu without their being accompanied by a scintilla of evidence by one of the most senior members of the Union Cabinet, we must ask a fundamental question:
Who was it that was speaking at the meeting with members of the press? Was it Nirmala Sitharaman, JNU alumna and private citizen, or Nirmala Sitharaman, Minister of Defence of India?
If it was the former, she had no business to say what she did at a public event. The obvious penalty for doing so is that she should no longer be a part of the Cabinet. If it was the latter, it is incumbent on Sitharaman to produce evidence that those she has accused are indeed engaged in treasonous activities and prosecute them following all due judicial process. Or, not to put too fine a point on matters, she should quit office, because she would otherwise have disgraced her station, engaged critically in ensuring the security of the nation-state.
The arguments made up until now relate to most basic matters of procedure and protocol. The political implications of Sitharaman’s comments are probably even more germane. The ruling party has spared no effort in creating an atmosphere in the country in which legitimate dissent and plurality of opinion finds it hard to survive, far less flourish. The incessant branding as 'anti-national', whatever that means, of all those who do not subscribe to the atavistic denominational nationalism of the BJP and its Sangh parivar brethren is one of the dominant elements of the strategy to bring this situation to a pass.
Sitharaman's comments are part of this strategy: They seek to demonise the Left parties for having had the temerity to form a front to defeat the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the student organisation affiliated to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, and the current regime’s attempt to capture JNU, perceived by the Sangh parivar to be a Left redoubt and a dangerously inimical force. Worse, by implication, as we have indicated above, it seeks to implicate a substantial section of JNU’s student community in treasonous conduct.
Another prong of this strategy is what should actually occasion sorrow or sadness, although not of the sort Sitharaman says she feels. That is the use of violence and thuggery to disrupt political processes in JNU. ‘Normal’ disputes and disagreements have always flourished in JNU: Between ‘Left’ and ‘anti-Left’ forces, and, for that matter, among Left parties and anti-Left parties. But they have been historically sorted out through debate. The worst that used to transpire were poster ‘wars’ or ‘battles’ of resolutions condemning this or that. (As a JNU alumnus himself, this writer should know.)
It was only with the advent of the ABVP that the culture of violence and intimidation that scars student politics in most universities in the country, including, for instance, Delhi University, where the ABVP has been a dominant force for many decades, was imported into JNU. Last week’s elections in JNU demonstrated that all over again.
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