Recent events at JNU have brought divergent views to the forefront and led to a heated debate on democratic dissent, with many questioning what appears to be the government’s attempt to stifle it.
The arrest of Jawaharlal Nehru Students Union (JNUSU) president Kanhaiya Kumar on charges of sedition has met with widespread criticism and largescale protests across the country.
Many eminent personalities have already spoken out against the incident – historian Romila Thappar has questioned the government’s anti-intellectual mind-set, former IAS officer Harsh Mander has termed the sedition law unjust , political analyst Pratap Bhanu Mehta has called out the government on its ‘subversion of freedom’ and The Tribune’s Editor-in-Chief Harsh Khare wrote on the need for the judiciary to protect democratic values and dissent.
The Wire spoke to some prominent individuals for their views on the fracas. Does Kumar deserve to be arrested on the charge of sedition? Is the law of sedition increasingly being used to quell dissent in India?
The current attempts to silence students with the outdated law of sedition and exploit the emotive possibilities of the word itself, is part of the right wing’s response to the dissent we have seen in the last several months. There has no adequate response from the right wing – either the government or its official and unofficial machinery – to the sharp questioning in campuses, and the protests by writers, academics, artists and scientists. The government and its supporters cannot address real and urgent questions about constitutional rights, such as freedom from caste-based discrimination or the right to dissent, by asking critical, challenging questions. So they are hitting back with an aggressive plan to label all critical voices as “anti-national” or “seditious”.
Perhaps they should test out their obsession with sedition on those who celebrate Godse. Perhaps they should consider who “insults Mother India” more – those who insist on a republic of equality based on the constitution, or those who murder scholars, lynch someone for eating meat and destroy our educational institutions with obscurantist ideas. As for all this weeping and storming about Mother India: the minute a mother is put on a pedestal, garlanded and sentimental speeches given, chances are that this same woman will not get the justice she deserves. Forget sentiment; what we have the right to is our democratic country with the freedom to question.
It is nonsense that they deserve to be arrested. They were doing what they had to do. I think students can certainly assemble on any issue, they have complete freedom to raise any kind of slogans they want. They’re not burning the constitution for heavens sake, they’re meeting and supporting a particular cause. It may be unpopular for some people and popular for some, so they were completely within their rights to do what they were doing.
The sedition law is on an old trick; you’ve had sedition used on people like Tilak, Bhagat Singh, Gandhi and Nehru, that was once upon a time. From the 1980s onwards it has become a popular fashion for state governments to use this sedition business, even though there are very clear Supreme Court rulings that say sedition is inapplicable to a society that has guaranteed freedom of speech. If there is something called freedom of speech in the constitution, it means you have the freedom to say whatever you want, and you remain free after you have said that. This has been upheld by the Supreme Court not just once but three times. Even though this law is a completely outdated colonial law, people continue to use it with impunity. It’s a great tool for harassment. It’s a shame that more than 65 years after independence, sedition has not been moved out of the statute books.
What is anti-national? Does saying ‘BJP down down’ mean you are anti national? Is saying ‘India ke tukde honge’ anti-national? It’s just a slogan after all. They’re shouting slogans, not holding AK-47s. This ‘anti-national’ charge is really disgusting.
Former professor of international relations, Delhi University
The charges are ridiculous. It’s a vaguely worded law, shut in colonial statute books. It should be thrown out of the books. The courts have also pointed out the limits of this law.
The sedition law has been used by previous governments as well, but now you have this government that has a much more systematic motivation to do three things – control education, control the media and information and reshape public culture. Given their systematic determination to do this, they’re basically using three techniques, both from the top and the bottom. By bottom I mean their activist groups, storm troopers and so on, organised and otherwise. They first test the waters – like they omit the word secular when they quote the constitution. Or from below you might have
things like the lynching at Dadri. Second is seeking to change the terms of public discourse, and third, when necessary, doing damage limitation up to a point so as trying not to alienate their core support base, of course. By doing what they’re doing, they promote self-censorship of a sort. They produce a new atmosphere, where their supporters feel that they are dominating the discourse and those who are against what’s happening become nervous, frightened, subdued. So you have to situate this in the whole larger context of the intolerance debate. They’re redefining the notion of nationalism, so their supporters can say that shouting slogans is anti-national.
Social anthropologist and professor at O P Jindal Global University
I don’t think you can charge them for sedition. I think this whole idea that any kind of dissent and disagreement about certain things and issues of policy becomes sedition is something unfair. In the BJP trying to do this, I think they’re doing it systematically and intentionally. That seems very clear. It’s very interesting that for once JNU is united, faculty and students, saying that you can’t do this. There’s a limit.
Sedition law is being used to stop dissent, especially around the nation state, and around anything to do with security. This whole use of the sedition law so freely and irresponsibly is a bit worrying.
Lawyer, researcher and activist
There are two things I would say to this. One, I have not heard the exact slogans, etc. that they are pointing to. Those are not available in the public domain to my knowledge. I’ve heard one speech by Kanhaiya, I don’t think that’s the one they’re arresting him for. There are two laws that I would look at. The law of sedition, which is a colonial provision. Once the fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression came in, the law of sedition has been challenged in the Supreme Court and the five-judge bench, the constitution bench, read it in a way that it would survive post the constitution coming in. So the sedition law now cannot be read as it would have been read by the British, it can only be read in which the Supreme Court has determined in the Kedar Nath Singh judgment: only if there is an “incitement to violence”.
It doesn’t matter how much a government is criticised, how much a state is criticised. There may be disagreement with policies, but none of that constitutes sedition. There is now a very narrow, tailored definition of sedition that the SC has given. Everything else is protected by the freedom of speech and expression. The second law that is important here is the law on arrest. Again, the SC has said do not unnecessarily arrest anybody, until and unless there are reasons. Now it is not as though this meeting incited any violence. Nobody went on rampage in Delhi or in Kashmir or anywhere else. Nothing like that happened. Even if they wanted to question, they can call someone to the police station and ask questions. JNUSU president is not running away. He’s a well known person, he can be asked to come to the police station. Clearly this is all deeply motivated, and that is the difficulty where the union home minister is going to give instructions, then of course the Delhi Police that works directly under them is going to act in this way.
The third is that when 66A was struck down, and everybody celebrated the we have won our fight for free speech, then part of free speech will and must be in a democracy, political opinion of any nature which will challenge many, many aspects of the democracy. But that will be part of the debate! We may dislike those opinions, vehemently disagree with them, but they will still have a space in the debate. There was nobody in this case carrying any arms or indulging in any violence. Therefore, the entire police action on the campus is so highly disproportionate. This is giving the terrible impression to the public that the police is still not a service provider, which it should be in a constitutional democracy. Lastly I would say that particularly when it comes to campuses etc., the government and the police have to look at it in a very different way. These are always going to be spaces from where there will be debate and discussion. I am not sure why all these ministers keep on saying to the media that anybody who disagrees is anti-national. Because there really is no crime called anti-national. I don’t understand what they mean when they use this term. There are very clear acts (of violence and non-violence) that are penalised, but they need to meet a certain threshold. This case is definitely not meeting the legal standards that are required. So far as the death sentence is concerned – many of us oppose the death sentence, the Law Commission of India has put out a report opposing the death sentence, judges and former judges have written against the manner in which certain people have been hung. These are different opinions people have pertaining to human rights, the only thing we are bound by is the law of the land.
For very long the sedition law has been used, and I think it is very, very high time that the SC took note of it. Because it is the SC that has interpreted the law such that it exists in the IPC without contradicting the fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression. Clearly the policeman on the ground, for various reasons including very often to please its political master, has used the provision to put away people who may have a different perspective on issues. It has happened in the Binayak Sen case earlier. Until public debate and SC action takes place, citizens have suffered incarceration unnecessarily for very long. This law is prone to abuse and means a curtailment to personal liberties in the interim, something the SC needs to take note off. To my mind, the very heart of free speech in a democracy is on the aspects of different political orientations and ideologies. Therefore, I don’t understand why sedition should not be similarly looked at. The SC needs to intervene because the law that has enunciated for us is not being upheld by the police. I also want to add here that all political parties have said that they strongly believe in police reform. One of the main reasons we need police reform in this country is to insulate the police from the political executive. In law, it does not matter is an FIR is lodged by a dalit, or an adivasi woman, or a BJP MP. However, we do know that power intersects through this and mediates how the law enforces itself. A BJP MP lodging an FIR and senior most ministers making media statements has meant not just swift action, but a complete over reaction.
Sociologist and lawyer
I don’t think anybody deserves to be arrested on the charge of sedition, it is a completely outdated law and completely anti-constitutional. To arrest students who are organising on charges of sedition is against the constitution. The nature of sedition is such that it is always only used selectively, for people who dissent against the majority government. This is a complete derogation of the very core democratic values that we ought to be safeguarding – to speak out, dissent, organise. Apart from that is also the fact that university spaces are supposed to be welcoming and open-minded to a diversity of views. It is a shame to see a university like JNU being harnessed in this manner. Previously, contentious issues have always been welcomed with debate here. To say that you can’t debate is to already shut down the mind that the university is supposed to open.
The law of sedition has been used in the past as well, the largest use was by the Congress and the Emergency came from there. But what we are witnessing now is a fundamentalist turn in the use of sedition laws. But before there was always the anchor of the constitution to challenge cases of sedition. What is worrying about this moment, particularly in the last year and a half, is that a majoritarian interpretation of a very reductionist, violent, Hindutva ideology is being posited at the national interest, and everything that is within this fold is supposed to be ‘Mother India’. This means that there are only a miniscule number of people like Smriti Irani who fall within this definition. In a sense I’m glad not to be Mother India. Who is this Mother India who is going to bleed? Who are these people representing? This very particular kind of religio-political identity is extremely exclusionary. So the axe can fall anywhere, it is very arbitrary. Just look at the pattern – Hyderabad University and now JNU. It is BJP MPs who are actually moving sedition cases and police cases. In the political order, it is impossible for a station house officer to disobey an MP’s command. Apart from the fact that you have an extremely communalised police force. What is worrying is that we are getting locked into a situation where an extremely narrow and violent Hindutva is not just being condoned but also perpetrated from the highest level. Who has made these people arbiter of ‘Mother India’?
Theatre actor and director
I’ve heard the tape, I’ve listened to Kanhaiya’s speech. There is no case for him to be arrested.
I do not think the law of sedition is being increasingly used to quell dissent in India, but I would say that it is being used with a lot of irresponsibility and based on a lot of untruths.
Reactions compiled by Jahnavi Sen.