However democratic values it may nourish, any mature nation would not allow sedition or anti-national activities on its soil in the name the freedom of speech and expression, even if it is in the form of mere slogan shouting. But of course India is a nation of all possibilities and it is not surprising that despite almost seven decades of democratic governance in the country, the ambitious and greedy politicians, media and interest groups will not spare any opportunity to capitalise even on such shameful events giving it a colour and flavour that suit their interests.
This time, it all started with a section of students in the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in Delhi organising an event within the campus to commemorate the hanging of Afzal Guru, a convicted and executed terrorist mastermind of Kashmiri origin for his alleged role in the heinous attack on the Indian Parliament in December, 2001. As it appears, the events took place in the following sequence:
A group of JNU students called for a ‘cultural meet’ in the campus to protest against the (so-called) ‘judicial killing of Afzal Guru and Maqbool Bhat’ and in solidarity with the stated struggle of Kashmiri people for their democratic right to self-determination on the Tuesday, 9th February 2016.
The event took place in spite of the university administration having denied the permission following a complaint by the student members of the Akhil Bhartiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), who termed the activity as anti-national and simultaneously lodged a complaint with the Delhi police too. The university administration maintained that it had been misled as the organisers had asked only permission for a “cultural programme”.
The gathering was allegedly attended by several Kashmiri students and outsiders as well. Traditionally, the JNU has been a stronghold of leftists (including some radical elements) and similar protest meetings against the capital punishment to Afzal Guru were reportedly organized in the campus in the past too to sympathise with the Kashmiri cause. The stated meeting sought the participation of Jawaharlal Nehru University Students Union (JNUSU), Students Federation Of India (SFI) and All India Students Association (AISA) and its other small and break away groups like Democratic Students’ Federation (SDF) and Democratic Students’ Union (SDU) known for their leftist leanings. The administration banned the use of mikes and the gathering was organized around a dhaba without mikes.
During the meeting, slogans like ‘Hum kya chaahte? Azaadi!’. ‘Tum kitne Afzal maaroge, har ghar se Afzal niklega!’ were raised by the crowd. Some of the more provocative and slanderous slogans like ‘Bharat ke tukde honge hazaar’ (India will be broken into a thousand pieces) and ‘Bharat ki barbaadi tak, jung rahegi, jung rahegi!’ (Our fight will continue until India is destroyed) were also raised which, as per the claim of some student, were raised by the outsiders attending the meet. Several video clips are taking round and one could see from the video footage available, those indulged in seditious slogan-shouting had covered their faces possibly to escape identity in the presence of the student leaders currently under scanner of the law enforcement agencies.
At the same time, the ABVP cadres were also indulged in counter sloganeering like ‘Kashmir hamaara hai, saara ka saara hai’. The meeting turned into a scuffle between the Left organisations and ABVP amid the slogan-shouting. In regard to the participation and anti-India slogan shouting in respect of the JNUSU members including its President Kanhaiya Kumar, there are claims and counter-claims.
Following the complaint with the Delhi police, a FIR was lodged by the Vasant Kunj police station against unknown persons on sedition charges, Vice Chancellor’s permission sought to enter the campus and Kanhaiya Kumar was arrested from his hostel on 12 February on the charges of sedition and criminal conspiracy. The online available speech of Kumar, subject to verification of the authenticity thereof, suggests that he did not support violence, terrorist or anti-India activity but he did favoured such debates in campus, “Who is Kasab…Afzal Guru…who are in a state to wrap bombs around their body and kill? If these questions are not raised in universities, the existence of universities becomes pointless…”
Social Media Flare Up
There has been a widespread debate in the social and internet media, some calling it an outright ‘anti-national’ event while others term it as ‘stifling of dissent’. There are videos, online materials on speeches and so on so forth, some of them possibly doctored or otherwise, the truth might emerge only after a thorough investigation but the event has given sufficient fuel to power and publicity hungry politicians and media, who are always on a look out to capitalise on any opportunity in furtherance of their own interests. Simultaneously, a nation-wide debate and protests escalating controversies in regard to sedition vis-à-vis freedom of expression have also been launched. The current controversy erupted in a meet with the expression of anti-national sentiments has subsequently snowballed into a huge state-vs-students tug of war and is bound to have its echo in the ensuing budget session of the Parliament.
Rationale of Anti-India Slogan-Shouting
People are entitled to have and hold on their opinion but there should be some reasonable limit and there is no doubt that the slogans cited above were provocative and slanderous with a brazen anti-national flavour. The administration and law of the land should not be expected to simply sit idle watching it meekly in the name of the freedom of speech and expression. Like the story of ‘the Father, Son and Donkey’, whatever action is taken is bound to invite perceived reactions and criticism from the various quarters irrespective of its legality or otherwise but that does not alter the reality and should not deter them for action so warranted. History is a witness that only those nations were secured, survived and prospered where the people had genuine respect and love for the motherland. Any rational person with patriotic sentiments would not support the idea to sit quiet over anti-India slogan-shouting calling for its destruction for the sake of tolerance in the name of the constitutional right of the freedom of expression. By any standard norms, the sloganeering and the causes espoused during the subject event were highly inflammatory and provocative perhaps worse than the communal speeches of certain known politicians in this country.
A lot information is available with a reasonable ctredence but I am consciously not calling the names of the suspected students involved leaving it for the law enforcing agencies to investigate and responsibility fixed in due course. But when some people give a call for “Bharat Ki Barbadi”, they basically want to destroy a largely secular, liberal and democratic fabric of India and by resorting to such slogan-shouting they were inflicting the most outrageous insult to the nation and our great leaders and revolutionaries who laid their lives for the freedom during the war of independence. Let us remember that even the freedom of speech and expression is not an absolute right under the Constitution and under the Article 19 (2) it is subject to reasonable restrictions in the interest of law and order and public morality. Then there is a distinction between the use of the right to speech and the abuse of the right to speech and this distinction needs to be understood and respected by all including the stated radical elements, the intellectuals and academicians as well.
Some people might think differently in this country with certain ideology or association with groups but they must understand if democracy is to survive, then it is a must that some bonafide restraints and restrictions are exercised on the people talking against the very nation which gives them identity and opportunity to live and prosper as a free citizen. They can criticize the government, they can criticize the system including individuals but criticizing the nation should be big ‘No’. If someone does it against Bharat (India), the law of the land and people of India must have a right to question his (or her) integrity and patriotism. It is indeed a democratic country and if someone has objections with the nature of the judicial trial of Afzal Guru or Maqbool Bhat, they can raise their objection in a constitutional manner within the boundaries of the law of the land. There is no need to wish or shout India’s destruction to register their protest.
Sometimes I wonder what kind of freedom these radical elements in the JNU are advocating when they indulge in sloganeering like “India Go Back” and “Kashmir Ki Azadi Tak, Jung Rahegi Jung Rahegi”? For the argument sake we take it that the alleged student leaders were not involved in anti-India slogan-shouting and outsiders had role in this. The question is that even the police cannot enter in the campus without the permission of the university administration so who had allowed outsiders to participate in the event organized by these student groups. Some veiled persons are visible in video footages shouting anti-India slogans in the presence of some student leaders. Should organizers not own responsibility for the cowardly anti-national act of the veiled persons?
Does the much talked about progressive thoughts and reasoning of the radical left in JNU reflect ‘anti-national flavour’ and support those who feel proud of being anti-India? What sort of example of “the freedom of expression” the so-called intellectuals and academicians, inland and abroad, exemplify when they question the very conviction of the dreaded terror masterminds in a fair legal trial by India’s highest court? Even if we ignore all these things, do they really have any concern for the innocent people died and kin suffered consequent to terrorist attacks?
Emergence of Radical Left and Ultra-Left groups
Currently there are multiple Associations and break away groups with the leftist and ultra-leftist ideologies operating in the JNU campus, some of them derive patronage even from the teaching faculty. Of this, present president Kanhaiya Kumar belongs to one of the more prominent AISF which has patronage and ideological support from the Communist Party of India (CPI). Another prominent group belongs to SFI, the student wing of the CPM, was founded in 1970 and has dominated JNUSU for years. In 1912, it lost to the AISA which is an ultra-left party affiliated to CPI (ML). The other smaller groups are Democratic Students’ Federation (SDF), a break-away faction of SFI started in 2012 and Democratic Students’ Union (SDU) which is a small ultra-leftist group.
Left Radical Groups and Controversies
This is not the first time that the left radical groups in the JNU are in the news. The current controversy is the logical culmination of ‘hatred politics’ that they have been consistently pursuing rather celebrating over years. To quote a few instances, this was not for the first time that the death of Afzal Guru was glorified with anti-India event, this was organized in the past too. These very elements were involved in celebration when 76 Indian jawans lost their life in a cowardly Naxal attack in Dantewada, Chhattisgarh in April, 2010. Then these very radical groups are responsible for organizing ‘Mahisashur Diwas’ in the JNU campus during the time of Durga Puja celebrations in JNU portraying Goddess Durga in a bad demeanour through posters.
In fact, during the last few years the radical elements in the JNU have attained a ‘new low’ by extending their activities within and beyond the campus. For illustration, in the banner of JNUSU they campaigned against Mr Narendra Modi in Varanasi, welcomed Syed Geelani, the Kashmiri separatist leader in the JNU campus and vehemently opposed other student groups when they invited Yoga Guru Ramdev for an academic event. They are known to organise public meetings with instances of circulating ‘hate literature’ often accusing the Indian state and society of the wrongdoings bringing disrepute to Indian society in national and international forum.
In a nutshell, it seems these radical left groups in the JNU have lost ‘the intellectual vigour and honesty’ over the years for which they were known in the past. Instead of raising real issues representing the larger student community like augmentation of hostel facilities, scholarships for the eligible students, safety of girl students, better academic environment and new courses etc., they are known more for engaging political agenda of the left and focusing on controversial issues some of which have been cited above.
Unwarranted Criticism & Intervention
The current incident in JNU was so widely publicised intentionally, or unintentionally, that it immediately attracted attention of many international names in academia and arts including likes of the linguist, philosopher, social and political commentator Noam Chomsky, gender theorist Judith Butler and Nobel laureate author Orhan Pamuk. In a joint statement signed by a host of professors and intellectuals across the international universities, they condemned invoking the sedition laws against the JNU students comparing it with 1975 Emergency like situation. They asserted that there was nothing antinational in the statements or slogans of the students and the way Indian Government was acting in the case showed their authoritarian attitude and intolerance towards any dissent setting aside India’s long standing commitment to the toleration and plurality of opinion.
Only time will tell as to what extent these intellectuals and academicians are justified in criticizing the action of the Indian establishment by giving a clean chit to the accused students even before an investigation and trial. People are entitled to have their opinion that they continue to do in any case with or without owning responsibility but the real stakeholders including any aware citizen, leave aside the law enforcing agencies, would not favour or tolerate the kind of language used during the anti-India slogan-shouting.
As regards the right to self-determination by the Kashmiri people professed by the radical student groups in the JNU and above referred intellectuals and academia, it is a complex issue and people including stated intellectuals and academia should desist from speaking their mind without proper understanding of the subject. It is true that the amalgamation of Jammu & Kashmir was challenged by Pakistan since the time of Independence and it has a support of a section of Kashmiri people too but it is also a fact that the integration of the state with India was done only after signing a legally valid and tenable ‘instrument of accession’ between the Indian Government and then Maharaja of Kashmir, subsequently ratified by the Parliament. By executing this document on 26 October 1947 under the provisions of the Indian Independence Act 1947, Maharajah Hari Singh of the then Jammu & Kashmir had agreed to accede to the Dominion of India.
Over the years, Pakistan through its state agencies like the ISI and military kept fomenting trouble in the state through its overt and covert operations, indulging in sabotage and militant activities by engaging mercenaries and a few Kashmiri youth through inducement. It has been almost seven decades since Independence, the majority populace and political parties in Jammu and Kashmir have joined mainstream for their progress and prosperity and owe allegiance to the Indian Constitution while a small faction of motivated people and separatist leaders still talk about the allegiance with Pakistan and their right to self-determination. Any dissent through peaceful means in a large democracy is understood but the integration of Jammu & Kashmir was an irreversible action and the history cannot be changed at the call of a handful minority that too largely dancing at the tune of a foreign power with misguided notions.
The Supreme Court Take
The ruckus created by a reactionary group of lawyers by resorting to violent means on the day Kanhaiya kumar was produced before a Patiala House Court in Delhi has been widely condemned and criticised in the media and public. An anguished Supreme Court had to warn of the consequences of the grave fallout for the country if concerned groups continue to abandon moderation sticking to their extreme views on issues. A bench comprising of two judges of the Hon’ble Supreme Court spared none including lawyers, politicians and media while making the following observation:
“It is common these days. All concerned parties, including lawyers, must learn to practice some moderation. There is a tendency to adopt extreme views and stick to it without fathoming the repercussions. Moderation in public space is need of the hour; otherwise there will be grave fallout.”
The Logical Approach
In the Indian democracy, every citizen has the freedom of speech and expression but with some riders. What needs to be remembered is that the freedom in itself is not without responsibility. So if a few students from the prestigious Central University decide to express their disagreement on the judicial killing by organizing a cultural evening, perhaps this could still be accepted. But if the meet culminates into an anti-national and unpatriotic event resorting to slogan-shouting like “Bharat ke tukde honge hazaar” (India will be broken into a thousand pieces) and “Bharat ki barbadi tak jung rahegi jung rahegi” (The fight will continue until India is destroyed), this is clearly a criminal offence of seditious nature punishable under Indian laws as it hurts the collective conscience of the nation. There is no doubt that there are social, cultural, economic and even emotional issues that affect individuals as well as groups in the country and righteous people should fight against these till it gets addressed but such a fight need to be through peaceful means and within the constitutional limits.
Need for the Review of Sedition Law
The issue of the misuse of the sedition law has been raised on several occasions in the past and once again the arrest of Kanhaiya Kumar, president of the JNUSU on the charges of sedition and criminal conspiracy by the Delhi Police has opened this debate.
Section 124-A of the Indian Penal Code defines sedition in a wide and expansive terms punishable with the imprisonment for life. The provision defines sedition as any action - whether by words, signs or visible representation - which brings or attempts to bring into hatred or contempt, or excites or attempts to excite disaffection towards the Government established by law in India. Disaffection has further been amplified by including disloyalty and all feelings of enmity. Many, including law luminaries, consider the law too draconian and relic of our colonial past because the definition is exceedingly broadly worded and prone to misinterpretation and misuse.
While adopting the Constitution in 1950, the fundamental rights were described under Section 19 (1) with certain riders in the following sub-sections. The right of the freedom of speech and expression was articulated as under:
“Article 19 in The Constitution Of India 1949
19. Protection of certain rights regarding freedom of speech etc
(1) All citizens shall have the right
(a) to freedom of speech and expression; … …”
“(2) Nothing in sub clause (a) of clause (1) shall affect the operation of any existing law, or prevent the State from making any law, in so far as such law imposes reasonable restrictions on the exercise of the right conferred by the said sub clause in the interests of the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency or morality or in relation to contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence.”
Thus sedition does not find a specific mention in the Constitution.
Despite opposition from some members of the Constituent Assembly to include sedition as express ground for limiting speech in Article 19 (2) apparently with an intent to ultimately abolish the draconian law under Section 124-A from IPC, then the same was successfully resisted. Thus after more than 65 years of adoption of the Indian constitution, the provision for sedition continues in the IPC and has been at times liberally used by the state and branded by many as a weapon to crush opposition.
While there has been wide opposition to the sedition law including a few significant court judgements in the past, none of the successive governments are known for any serious endeavour to review the sedition law. Recently, the former Solicitor General of India and retired Supreme Court Judge N. Santosh Hegde favoured the sedition law citing some ‘restrictions’ are needed to stop people from abusing and talking against the country. He reportedly held that the act of some JNU students, who allegedly termed the execution of Parliament attack convict Afzal Guru as “judicial murder” and raised anti-India slogans definitely amounts to sedition.
On the other hand, the soon retiring Delhi Police Chief BS Bassi suggested the need for redefining the sedition law citing similar laws in the US, the UK, Belgium and France are being redefined in the light of the technology assisting terrorists. In an interview to a TV Channel he suggested that the sedition law needs to be rewritten to remove all ambiguity so that citizens have no doubt about what constitutes an anti-national act.
Amid the ongoing debate on the sedition law in the country, even the President has said recently that the Indian Penal Code requires a thorough revision to address the needs of the 21st Century. There have been very few changes in the law ever since it was created during the British regime largely to cater for their colonial needs. Many new offences including high technology related ones need to be properly defined and incorporated.
India is a diverse nation not only by demographic parameters but also on account of ideological differences, religious beliefs, political and socio-economic considerations. There are people and groups who still assign preference to extraneous issues over the national interests. For many years to come, a need will remain to discipline such erring elements and it is the bounden duty and prerogative of the state to evolve suitable mechanism to do so. What appears to be unquestionable is that the existing sedition law has many ambiguities and prone to misuse. Hence there is a need to review it to remove ambiguities to make it fair and explicit in the eyes of the law and citizens at large.
The Way Forward
There is no doubt that the JNU is a prestigious institution traditionally known to be a bastion of leftist ideology advocating free speech. The unfortunate event is disturbing yet in no way it represents the majority sentiments or a major threat to the political and socio-economic fabric and integrity of the nation. Therefore, there appears to be no need for disproportionate reaction at the level of political parties and the social media at large while the law should be allowed to take its own course.
It is evident from the current crisis that there is a pressing need to discourage political activities within the campus irrespective of the party affiliations. Beyond the ideological leanings if any student group is identified to claim or seek support from any political party, it needs to be derecognized. A way should also be find out to minimize media coverage and intervention within the campus. If police needs a nod from the administration of the educational institution even to enter the campus for the interrogation or arrest of the suspects of criminal conspiracy of seditious nature, why the similar procedure can’t be evolved for the media coverage and intervention.