Jawaharlal Nehru University row: Freedom of speech now Modi-fied in New Delhi

Published February 18, 2016
A group of lawyers assaulted JNU student leader Kanhaiya Kumar (C) as he was brought to the Patiala House Court for a hearing. —AFP
A group of lawyers assaulted JNU student leader Kanhaiya Kumar (C) as he was brought to the Patiala House Court for a hearing. —AFP

The year is 2016 and the place is Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in New Delhi but it could very well have been the late 80s at the Peshawar University Campus in Pakistan where right-wing religious conservatives muffled dissent and debate using intimidation and violence.

The JNU campus is alive with the chants of students and faculty protesting the arrest of the president of the University’ student union, Kanhaiya Kumar.

The Modi government has charged him with sedition. Mr. Kumar’s real crime is his belief in the freedom of speech and his unfaltering support for the downtrodden in India.

Also read: Protests over student’s arrest spread to 18 Indian varsities

All this started a few days earlier when an event at the JNU Campus to commemorate the hanging of Afzal Guru turned into a rally with protestors raising slogans for a free Kashmir.

Mr. Guru was hanged on February 9, 2013, for his alleged involvement in the December 2001 terrorist attack on the Indian Parliament. His conviction and subsequent hanging have been a source of controversy in India.

However, neither the JNU’s student union nor its president had anything to do with holding the event.

Also read: JNU student union leader imprisoned in Afzal Guru's old jail cell

The JNU campus is a part of India’s capital where Mr. Modi’s ideologies are not in vogue.

Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), a student group aligned with RSS and the BJP, is leading the charge against Mr. Kumar. Citing 'a betrayal of Mother India', ABVP student leaders, along with the BJP leadership, could be seen verbally assaulting Mr. Kumar on TV talk shows.

When Mr. Kumar was brought to court on Wednesday, a large group of men outside the court, who appeared to be lawyers, attacked him, as anger over a case that has sparked mass protests boiled over.

See: BJP's student wing activists try to disrupt seminar on Kashmir issue at JNU

If Mr. Kumar and the JNU’s student union were not the ones behind the event, why then, is the Modi government using the State’s machinery to target a young student leader?

The answer to this riddle lies in what Mr. Kumar stands for.

Months earlier, Kanhaiya Kumar was the surprise winner of the student union elections. It was his inspiring speech at the elections that moved his fellow students.

Mr. Kumar comes from a family that lives on a meager sum of 3,000 rupees a month. His commitment to the downtrodden is influenced by his adherence to the communist ideologies.

He, like many others, sees through the empty rhetoric of progress and development when millions of Indian children are condemned to stunted growth brought about by acute malnutrition.

His fearless speech exposed Mr. Modi, BJP, and RSS and their attempts to silence dissent in India.

Also see: Indian minister sees Pakistani link in university protests

While Mr. Kumar couldn’t be silenced before, he most likely will not be silenced now.

Still, political and other groups aligned with the BJP are not relenting. At his court appearance on Wednesday, lawyers and others assaulted Mr. Kumar.

Mr. Kumar and JNU have become unsuspecting characters in the BJP and RSS’s campaign to radicalise Indian body politic, the same way General Zia’s regime radicalised Pakistan.

Indian intellectuals, writers, poets, and performing artists are being harassed into silence. Earlier, I expressed my concerns about the sorry state of affairs in Modi’s India in the following words:

“It's not the same in India. It pains me to see that a cultural shift is taking place where even the intellectuals are hesitant to express their opinions. Many have strong words to say about the state of their nation, but only off-the-record.”

Kashmir and Afzal Guru are certainly red herrings in the JNU saga. Slogans for an independent Kashmir are not a new occurrence on Indian soil. Such slogans are raised every day in parts of the Indian-controlled Kashmir. With over 70,000 dead and 8,000 missing since 1989, the insurgency in Kashmir is one of the bloodiest unresolved conflicts that has somehow failed to resonate with the international conscious.

The victims include not just the Kashmiri Muslims, but thousands of Kashmiri pandits and Sikhs, many of whom had to abandon the land of their ancestors to escape violence.

Freedom of speech is the real test of any democracy

My schooling took place under General Zia’s martial law where all freedoms were held in abeyance.

The Islami Jamiat-i-Talaba (IJT) was the de facto university administration. It was the IJT leaders who decided what could be debated at the university’s speech contests. IJT’s goons would police the campus in their self-appointed capacity as the promoters of virtue. They would force women to sit in separate sections from men in lecture halls and cafeterias.

Their aim was to defend Islam the same way BJP is ‘defending’ Hindutva.

"I am an Indian. I have full faith in the Constitution, as well as the judiciary of the country,” Kumar said when he was produced for remand proceedings.

Also read: 1984: The murder of Pakistan's student unions

Kanhaiya Kumar, and those who voted for him, cannot be fooled by empty slogans. They know that masked in religious and nationalist rhetoric is the agenda to curb dissent and diversity of opinions.

Across the border in Pakistan, many would warn their Indian friends to be on guard to protect their freedoms. Pakistanis have already been on the slippery slope that ended in a pit of violence from which escape is proving hard.

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