Wednesday, February 17, 2016

JNU Student Leader arrested on Sedition

Right now, as I write this, India is under a great threat.  India’s unity as a nation is under attack.  An enemy has made his intentions clear - he wants to break up India into tiny pieces.  He has the wherewithal to take away our freedoms, strip us of our institutions, and then break up this nation.  And we are all reeling under the fear.  What we believed in all these years - that this country shall always stay united - is all of a sudden put at risk. 

The enemy comes in the form of ordinary students of JNU campus in New Delhi.  What they said in their college grounds, their threats to break this nation into tiny little pieces, has made this entire country paranoid, and India has taken the necessary precaution to stop them in their tracks.  It has used the same law that the British used to incarcerate Gandhi and other national leaders during Independence Movement.  On the charges of sedition, the student union leader of JNU is arrested.

Social media is buzz with support for the threatened nation.  They believe that this nation has done the right thing putting this evil incarnate in the jail for his threats.

What is my opinion on this issue?

I believe that freedom of expression has to be absolute – no ifs and no buts.  Without that no country can ever create a vibrant and strong democracy.  We have to allow all kinds of expression without getting into, ‘should we allow it or should we not allow it?’

If India is indeed a great country, it doesn't need protection from an ordinary JNU student leader and his vitriolic campaign against India.  If India is indeed a great country, it will protect every voice that is spoken by its citizens, especially that voice which speaks against it.  On the other hand, India becomes a puny country when it believes it needs to be defended from every vitriolic speech of a student leader of a university. 

Some of the great universities transformed societies and countries. Universities like UC Berkeley  have always been leftist-liberal in their ideology, and have been hotbed of anti-war protests where US flag was routinely burnt, and yet, it is these universities which continue to lead their country in liberal thought, setting a course of history in their country that eventually put a black man as president of US.  You take away that freedom to those universities in 60s and 70s and today's USA would have been far more hostile, far more conservative, far more jingoistic, far more xenophobic, and far more racist.

India needs JNU, how much ever we disagree with it opinions.  If India has to remain a free and democratic country true to its principles, we need their student leaders out in the open enjoying their freedom to express their opinions however disagreeable it is to most of us.  Otherwise, we have another choice, snub every dissenting voice, every disagreeable opinion, and become a Pakistan or Bangladesh.

It is an irony that the Sedition law, that infamous law, against which Nehru spoke vociferously, the law that was routinely used to incarcerate Gandhi and other Indian leaders, is now used by the modern, free and independent India to chain its own people. Whereas the same law is no longer used by the ones who created it - the British.   Insane laws, like the sedition law, have no place in a modern state. They have to go. Such laws are routinely used to take care of political opponents, like in TN, or snub disagreeable voices, like in JNU. But unlike what's its votaries prescribe, it is seldom used against spies.

We speak of 'antiestablishment' slogans as something bad when in fact it is a healthy sign in a vibrant democracy. Every establishment when it becomes powerful threatens individual freedoms. And therefore it is the individual’s voice of dissent that needs protection, not the powerful establishment.

‘Anti-national’ is a loosely and badly defined term

What is ‘anti-national’?  Sitting when national anthem is played? Stepping on the National Flag? Saying India should not continue its armed forces in North-East? Criticizing India for its role in Kashmir? It's a slippery slope.   

In some countries, burning a flag is act of protest, like burning a book, or toppling a statue. And yet, if we single out one act, and say, 'if you put your feet next to the national flag, it is anti-national' you run into problems. Like how Sania Mirza was slapped with FIRs against her when one photographer shot national flag next to her feet.  Recently two students were whisked off my police when they made some disrespectful but innocuous comments during Bal Thackeray’s funeral procession.

Conclusion

JNU has always had space for such protests.  Many students’ leaders expressed stronger opinions against this nation over the last many decades.  And yet, this nation stood united without getting harmed.  But with the acquisition of new tools like mobile phone and video cameras, such slogans are aired across the nation into the homes of peevish Indians who get ruffled up easily.  Video clips are shared over social media to enrage the ordinary Indians who fear that the nation is going to break into pieces of these slogans from JNU.

But in reality, what is under threat is not unity of this country but the freedom of expression itself.  Governments in power, monarchs, the rulers, have consistently used the perception of threat to a nation or kingdom to rob us away of our freedoms.  And this is one of those instances.   

3 comments:

  1. Very well said Sujai. By the way, the notion of "absolute free speech", is that possible, especially in democracies?

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  2. Excellent post Sujai !! keep going

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  3. There is no standard definition for Nationalism or Patriotism but we can't abuse a nation we live. Freedom of expression is absolute no doubt but it should be meaningfull. Yes, just because some students shouted nothing will happen to the unity of country but these kind of slogans can't be accepted. Saying destruction of nation and shouting for continuous 15 mins is no intellectualism, its not criticizing the state. its a sedition (i will stop calling as war against the state). No govt will keep quiet.

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