A Chilling Abuse of Law

Why the arrest of the JNU student union's president is an assault on democracy

Wire-editorialThe arrest of Kanhaiya Kumar, president of the Jawaharlal Nehru Students Union, on charges of sedition marks a dramatic escalation of the undeclared war the Narendra Modi government and the Sangh parivar are waging against the culture of democratic dissent in India. The incident that triggered the arrest was the alleged chanting of “anti-national” slogans by persons unknown at an event on the university campus. Union home minister Rajnath Singh announced on Twitter that he had ordered the Delhi police to “take strong action against the anti-India elements.” Apart from its raid on JNU, the police has also filed sedition charges in a second case stemming from another meeting in Delhi to commemorate the hanging of Afzal Guru where “anti-national slogans” were apparently raised.

Now, whether the home minister likes it or not, there is no law which bans speech that is “anti-national”. The crime of sedition still remains on the statute books. However, as the courts in India have repeatedly ruled, slogans and speech, however distasteful and odious they may be, cannot be considered seditious under Section 124 of the IPC unless they involve the direct and imminent incitement of violence against the government established by law.

In any event, Kumar is not accused of shouting these slogans, nor was he an organizer of the event. If he is to be accused of not doing enough to stop inflammatory utterances from being made, the same charge can quite easily be laid at the door of senior BJP leaders who have done nothing to end the stream of incendiary invective from sundry party and parivar activists. The speech Kumar gave soon after the programme in question was stopped by the university authorities with police help was a purely political one (of high quality, it must be noted), delivered in the classic agitational style of the Left. Not only were there no exhortations to violence in what he said, Kumar openly embraced the ideals of the Constitution of India and the freedom struggle, and accused the Sangh parivar of acting against the nation. If a speech of this calibre is going to be declared criminal, then India is truly entering a dark and terrible phase.

The Union of India and the government established by law are resilient enough to withstand slogans and speeches raised by disgruntled citizens – regardless of whether they advocate the independence of Kashmir or the establishment of a ‘Hindu rashtra’ and regardless of whether they choose to venerate convicted terrorists like Afzal Guru or Nathuram Godse. It is only when individuals move from mere speech to the direct advocacy of violence that they ought to run the risk of legal sanction. In a democracy, it cannot be any other way. The fact that the police crackdown on JNU students has been ordered by Rajnath Singh himself tells us that the intolerance of the present government is slowly reaching higher and higher levels. Not satisfied by vilifying the country’s top writers and artists for protesting the state’s failure to curb acts of violence, the BJP and its student wing have attempted to strong arm critics in one way or the other. The attitude of the Sangh towards media freedom can be seen by the way in which senior ministers of the Modi government regularly refer to journalists as “presstitutes”. Invoking the law of sedition for the act of speaking or organizing or merely being present at an event is a direct attack on the right to free speech and the freedom of assembly. Under no circumstances can this offensive be allowed to succeed.