In an unprecedented and draconian move, Delhi Police personnel entered the precincts of Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi yesterday afternoon, and began a search operation based on malicious complaints against ‘unnamed persons’ filed by a Delhi BJP leader in response to an event titled – ‘Country Without a Post Office’ – organized by some students to commemorate and protest against the execution of Afzal Guru on February 9th.
While there is no debate in my mind about the objectionable nature of a particular slogan – ‘Bharat ki Barbadi Tak, Jang Chalegi, Jang Chalegi’ / ‘A War will Continue, Until India is Destroyed’ – raised by some individuals, during the march that occurred after permission for the meeting was cancelled by the university authorities at the demand of the ABVP unit in JNU, it does not follow from this that the police should be called in to detain and harass other students who were present at this meeting and the subsequent march. In fact several students who the police are now hunting were those who tried their level best to counter and stop the diversionary sloganeering (which was but one small episode on that eventful evening).
The only way to counter such sloganeering, which diverts attention from the necessary task of discussing legitimate questions that the student community have about abuse of legal procedures, capital punishment and the erosion of rights, and even the right to self-determination, is through vigorous criticism and open debate – which can openly challenge diversionary, reactionary calls to war, wherever they may come from. Raising slogans for a war to destroy India is as reactionary, as stupid and as retrograde as raising slogans demanding violence against anyone who asks for freedom in Kashmir – such as is commonly heard when goons allied to the RSS routinely say – ‘Doodh Mangoge to Kheer Denge, Kashmir Mangoge to Cheer Denge‘. (‘If you ask for milk, we will give you cream, if you ask for Kashmir, we will tear you apart’). This kind of sloganeering, whether it is pro-or-anti-India, or any existing nation-state, or any nation-state-in-waiting, only leads to the kind of noise that makes conversation about the realities of peoples lives, territories, histories and futures, impossible. The only sane way to respond to this kind of noise is to restore the terms of an actual conversation where no one has to feel the need to resort to the monotonous invocation of destruction. Our political imaginations can do better than to remain enslaved to violent and reductive nationalist binaries, be they Indian or Kashmiri.
A university is precisely the kind of space where this kind of conversation ought to flourish. It needs to be underscored that the ethos of JNU has been historically hospitable to the asking of fundamental questions about political and social realities. This is not exceptional, this is normal. It should be considered absolutely normal for students and young people to have questions and doubts about the retention of the barbaric practice of capital punishment in India. It should be absolutely normal for a university to be a space where these doubts and questions can be raised. If this constitutes sedition, then a vast majority of people (who include eminent writers, judges, intellectuals as well as many other citizens) opposed to the use of capital punishment would have to be locked up under the sedition law. None of the people currently being detained or being looked for by the police said anything that can be proven to have incited anyone to any violence, which is amply demonstrated by the completely peaceful nature of the assembly. As Lawrence Liang has pointed out in a previous post, even the attempt to frame their positions as seditious would be bad in law.
It is very unfortunate that the new Vice Chancellor of the University has given in to pressures the extreme right wing forces in power (and the ABVP, their clients in the student community) to allow the police to act against the culture of open and democratic debate that is part of this ethos of the university, even though nothing in law requires him to do so. It is reported that some students have been suspended from taking classes and participating in the academic life of the university, pending an inquiry.
A university is a space for students and others to think about every question, from every angle. This may include opinions that may even be considered seditious by some in deference to an outdated, vague, colonial law that acts as a fetter on thinking and should have no place in the statute of a free society. A university is a place for peaceful dialogue and learning, not for the stifling of opinions and debate. It is certainly not a place where the police should be given free rein to intimidate, detain, question and arrest any student or faculty member, merely for the voicing of their opinions. The only way to counter objectionable opinions, if and when they are aired on campuses, I insist, at the risk of repetition, is through free debate, through more teaching, through better learning, not through police action.
In these circumstances, it is only reasonable to demand that the Vice Chancellor of JNU immediately ask the police to leave the university, end their witch hunt and stop harassing students. The arrested students, including the president of the Jawaharlal Nehru University Students Union should also be immediately released, and all charges against them dropped. Students should not have to face suspension or disciplinary action for peaceful assembly and the voicing of opinions.The restoration of normalcy in the university requires that police interference in the normal processes of university life should cease immediately.
There is a growing concern at the continuing efforts by the BJP Government at the centre, and their agents (organizations like the ABVP) to turn universities into spaces where the freedom of expression and inquiry is curtailed. This creates an atmosphere of intimidation and fear, where teachers are afraid to teach, students are scared off learning and where everyday acts of thinking, questioning and discussion are frowned upon. It is this kind of intimidation, fear and harassment that resulted in the tragic suicide of Rohith Vemula.
I believe that it is time for all sensible individuals, teachers, students, activists, intellectuals, writers and artists to rise up to the defense of universities, of students and teachers cross India and work actively for the maintenance of calm, peace and freedom in spaces of learning.
As I have said before, this regime is carrying out a sustained assault on students and young people everywhere. This assault takes different forms in different places, it ranges from the imposition of incompetent favorites as heads of institutions, plans to curtail funding for education, restrictions on syllabi, curbs on freedom of discussion, debate, inquiry and research, attempts to restructure educational institutions to turn them into teaching shops, and a systematic attack on the personal choices of young people about how they want to live, learn and even love. The past few months have seen exceptionally courageous and resilient mobilization by young people everywhere, which have crystallized around the rage and sorrow that students have felt at the ABVP-BJP led witch hunt that led to the tragic death of Rohith Vemula in the Hyderabad Central University.
The attack on JNU is an attempt to stem the momentum that the young people opposed to the current regime have created. The regime’s aggression and its desperation is also a sign of its fear. On campuses everywhere, students would do well to remain calm, focused and resolute in their peaceful resistance to the regime that wants to turn the space of education into a hell devoid of questions, doubt and dissent.
We must all refuse to be cowed down by the bullies at the gates of our universities.