India’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government, which has been in power since May 2014, got into a ruckus with the student community in Hyderabad Central University (HCU) and Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) recently.
Following the 93rd Amendment to the Constitution expanding reservation in admissions for ‘Other Backward Classes’ by 27 percent, a ‘quiet revolution’ began with caste composition of students in elite universities becoming democratized and broadened. Students from different communities (minus the Muslims) gained access turning universities into public spaces where all groups (barring the poorest) could mingle and exchange ideas openly and freely.
But the newly expanded university site has become a source of immense concern for the communalized BJP-led regime. Leading university campuses allow depressed classes of students who are assertive to make common cause with other marginalized groups.
This, among other things, led BJP to launch vicious campaigns against ‘anti-national’ activities of some students and slap sedition charges against them under the colonial Indian Penal Code (IPC). ‘Sedition’ during the British Raj was conceived as inciting violence against the government and it was a badge of honor for freedom fighters.
Obviously, such an absurd charge cannot be made against anyone in a post-colonial, democratic and republican India.
For the Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh (RSS), the ideological mentor of BJP, Muslims, Christians and Communists are the main enemies. They are not of indigenous origin for the ostensibly puritanical party.
The BJP’s campaigns against ‘love jihad’ (young Muslim boys targeting girls belonging to non-Muslim communities for conversion to Islam by feigning love), ‘beef ban’ (prohibition of eating beef), ‘award vapsi’ (return of central government awards in protest) and ‘Islamic terror’ and other campaigns in favour of ‘Beti Bachao’ (‘save the daughter’) and Beti Padao’ (‘educate the girl’) cannot be considered progressive in higher educational institutions such as the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Chennai, HCU and JNU. They face BJP’s onslaughts.
The BJP campaign against JNU students is highly disturbing with far-reaching potentialities.
Interestingly, the ruling BJP had suggested that the JNU should start a course of study on Vedic Astrology but the suggestion was rejected because it was considered regressive.
The right-wing BJP government has no regard for values embodied in the Constitution such as secularism, democracy and social justice. It tends to crush student communities which prefer pursuing modern and rational values.
The BJP is intent on looking back to ancient ‘Bharat’ and its philosophy and cultural heritage; it is tied to Brahmanical Hinduism and mythology. The Prime Minister Narendra Modi has proudly noted the alleged existence of plastic surgery in ancient India since the Hindu god Ganesh has an elephant head. There were presumably even flying carpets in ancient India as claimed in Hindu mythology!
The ruling BJP and RSS, which pursue ‘Hindu nationalism’, consider that modern educational institutions provide only useless knowledge.
The Human Resources Development Minister Smriti Irani has launched a vitriolic attack on IIT Chennai, HCU and JNU for their alleged ‘anti-national’ activities.
Modi and BJP chief Amit Shah had been ‘pracharaks’ (propagandists) of the ‘Hindutva’ ideology of the RSS for long before they assumed their current roles.
Secular nationalism, democracy, socialism, humane governance and development are all unacceptable to the BJP-RSS combine.
Modi today faces a sea of troubles for his efforts to demolish India’s secular fabric and to build a Hindu State, which is unlikely to meet the aspirations of a multinational, multi-religious, multicultural, multilingual and profoundly pluralistic socio-political set-up that constitute the ‘Idea of India’.
Modi and his ideological cohorts seem to be playing with fire. His government’s attempt to suppress political dissent in HCU and JNU signals the political turmoil that waits in the wings for BJP. The recent struggles by the Jat and Patel community youths in the states of Haryana and Gujarat respectively for employment and jobs would add to the turmoil.
Let us look briefly at events that led to massive protests in JNU. On February 9, the elected leader of the JNU’s left wing Students’ Federation of India (SFI), Kanhaiya Kumar, organized a debate on the ‘wrong’ judicial decision to hang Kashmiri militant Afzal Guru.
Guru played a key role in the attack on Indian Parliament on Dec. 13 2001 by providing hideout and logistics for terrorists in New Delhi. He was convicted, his death sentence was upheld by the Supreme Court and he was hanged at Delhi’s Tihar Jail on February 9 2013.
SFI’s move to hold a debate in support of Guru was opposed by the Hindu right wing student body Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarti Parishad (ABVP) which alleged that anti-India slogans were raised at the gathering.
ABVP members, wearing lawyers’ black robes, tried to disrupt Kanhaiya Kumar’s protest and branded him as an anti-national seditionist punishable under the IPC.
A few days later, Delhi police detained Kanhaiya Kumar and two other students citing anti-national slogans shown in a doctored visual footage.
While being taken to the Patiala House Court, Kanhaiya Kumar was severely beaten up by BJP-friendly ‘lawyers’ who were in fact hoodlums. Blatant use of state power protected these men from arrest while the left wing student leaders, who were innocent, were held by the police.
Kanhaiya Kumar was assaulted again on February 17 by Hindu-nationalist ‘lawyers’. Mob rule prevailed and justice failed in spite of the Supreme Court order that the accused must be protected.
In a follow-up, the court set up a panel of eminent senior advocates to inquire into the violent incidents.
The panel noted that the charge of sedition had become a ‘play-thing in the hands of officialdom’. The IPC had listed offences such as conspiracy, waging war, causing group enmity, hurting religious sentiments and so on all of which are indeed elements of a full-fledged police state.
The panel found that the violent right wing ABVP had gone out of its way to ‘provoke disaffection’. This was ‘provocation aforethought’ and indicated ‘McCarthyism’. The action of the ABVP had the tacit support of the union minister for human resource development. An atmosphere of terror had been perpetrated in the court premises, the panel said.
The police commissioner of Delhi, under political influence, described the lawyers’ attack on Kanhaiya Kumar near the court premises as a ‘minor scuffle’. He showed indecent haste in arresting student leaders and in allowing black-coated hoodlums in the magistrate’s court to assault Kanhaiya Kumar.
The Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh allowed himself to be fooled into reading the JNU events as a Pakistani conspiracy based on a tweet from a parody account of Hafiz Sayeed, the Pakistani terrorist.
The panel concluded: i) a discussion on the deceased Kashmiri militant Afzal Guru did not constitute anti-nationalism; ii) the charge of sedition could only be maintained if there had been ‘intentional incitement to violence’; iii) the crowd at the JNU meeting had been deliberately collected by the ABVP which is close to BJP; iv) the vice-chancellor had erred in inviting the police into the university campus (and they even entered the girls’ hostel); v) the arrest of Kanhaiya Kumar was illegal and the police commissioner had shown ignorance of the law; vii) the JNU incidents constituted an attempt to establish BJP’s control over the university, dislodge the liberals and block intellectual exchange; viii) a serious situation was created inside the court; ix) the police ignored the Supreme Court’s orders and colluded with the trouble makers; x) the law on sedition must be revoked; xi) Indian democracy had been damaged and rule of law undermined.
Most disturbingly, Modi had remained silent throughout these developments indicating perhaps his approval.
The ruling party’s allegation of ‘anti-national’ activities in the JNU and its charge of sedition against Kanhaiya Kumar are contrary to its own policy of seeking accommodation with Kashmiri and Naga separatistists in search for political power.
These developments will have far-reaching implications for Indian politics.
The writer is a former civil servant and police officer and author of ‘State, Policy and Conflicts in Northeast India’ Routledge 2016
The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the view of Asia Times.