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Modi govt left with a red face

Modi govt left with a red face
Highlights

Sedition is a serious charge. When the state slaps it on an individual or an organisation, it must honestly pursue. Greater diligence is needed in a...

Kanhaiya has delivered some home truths to the Narendra Modi government, the Bharatiya Janata Party and its affiliates. He has gained sympathy against their clumsy overreach and mindless muscle-flexing, blatantly misusing the Delhi Police and unleashing lawyers behaving as goons, beating up even the media personnel when went to report the court proceedings. What should have been best left to university authorities to tackle has ignited something that the government and the ruling party have enough reasons to regret

Sedition is a serious charge. When the state slaps it on an individual or an organisation, it must honestly pursue. Greater diligence is needed in a complex democracy like ours. If not, the result could be counter-productive. The damage caused is not just political, and could be lasting.

Nationalism is a heady opiate of the masses, just like religion. When the two combine, it is a dangerous mix that divides the society deep down into ‘us’ and ‘them’. No matter who gains or losses, the social disquiet can hurt deeply. Both these warnings have gone unheeded. We debated, inconclusively, on ‘tolerance’ versus ‘intolerance’. Now, new meanings and interpretations are being imposed on us on who is a ‘nationalist’ and who is ‘anti-national.’ On the other hand, we also have new interpretations of what ‘azaadi’ means.

In the eye of a political storm that resonated across the country and had the world take note, Kanhaiya Kumar, president of the Jawaharlal Nehru University Students Union (JNUSU), insists that he called for ‘azaadi’ freedom from hunger, from upper caste domination, from social and economic marginalisation, from inequality and much else.

At a rally were also some Kashmiri separatists who, we are told, raised secessionist slogans. Somewhere along the line, we are further told, the video recordings of Kanhaiya’s speech got doctored and his ‘azaadi’ was mixed with Kashmiri separatism. He was arrested.

Allegedly tortured by police while being interrogated, belaboured by flag-waving lawyers, not once but twice on court premises, in full public view, he has emerged from the trial by fire. Son of a lowly paid social welfare department employee, his mother an Anganwadi worker, Kanhaiya walked into the campus after 23 days in jail to hero’s welcome. TV grabs of the rally show that he had emerged stronger and defiant in the face of the collective animosity of the State.

His speech before a 3,000-plus audience of students and teachers was electrifying. Full of wit, sarcasm, it betrayed no venom, but confidence. He had measured his arguments well and he pointedly replied to all the charges leveled against him.
He talked of “azaadi in India, not from India.”

He talked against tyranny of the upper caste and of the state. His icon, he said, was the Rohith Vemula, the hapless Hyderabad University scholar who committed suicide when called “anti-national” and pursued by the state and the university, and not Afzal Guru, the Kashmiri youth who had been convicted of conniving in the 2001 attack on Parliament.

Kanhaiya has delivered some home truths to the Narendra Modi government, the Bharatiya Janata Party and its affiliates. He has gained sympathy against their clumsy overreach and mindless muscle-flexing, blatantly misusing the Delhi Police and unleashing lawyers behaving as goons, beating up even the media personnel when went to report the court proceedings. What should have been best left to university authorities to tackle has ignited something that the government and the ruling party have enough reasons to regret.

There was a feeling of déjà vu in that barely two years ago, when Modi was campaigning across the country against the Manmohan Singh government, the media, especially the TV channels, gave him tremendous boost. But on the day Modi was berating the Opposition in Parliament, the evening was reserved by the same TV channels for Kanhaiya's mesmerising 60-minute speech.

His response to criticism was clear; even if you disagreed with every word he spoke. Modi was, as usual, good while speaking in Parliament. But the TRPs belonged to Kanhaiya and his mix of defiance, idealism, hope and humour. Some called it the return of “freedom at midnight” – a reference to the famous “Tryst with destiny” speech delivered by Jawaharlal Nehru at Parliament House on August 14, 1947.

That would be premature and even an exaggeration. But it is impossible to ignore or downplay the spirit of Kanhaiya’s speech. It is a slap on the face of the likes of Venkaiah Naidu, who advised the students to stay away from politics and focus on studies, forgetting that half-a-dozen of his ministerial colleagues have emerged from student politics, some from the JNU, no less.

Kanhaiya has been called “new star on the political horizon.” If nothing else, he has brought back the Left parties into focus in time for the elections in Kerala and West Bengal, at a time when their political influence in legislatures and among the people, particularly the young, is dwindling. They should all thank the Modi government for its handling of the JNU stir. Kanhaiya belongs to the All India Students Federation (AISF), student wing of the Communist Party of India (CPI).

Indicative of greater Left unity, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) has announced that he would campaign in the West Bengal elections next month. Whether the “Kanhaiya effect” will help the Left recover some of the lost ground in next month’s elections, whether that will evolve into a broad anti-BJP phalanx and more crucially, convert into votes, remains to be seen.

Going beyond this round of election, even the dwindling clout of the Left parties cannot be underestimated in India’s socio-economic conditions. But it is not all simple. Kanhaiya’s AISF is moderate Left. But his JNU colleague Umar Khalid hails from DSU (All India Revolutionary Students Federation), student wing of much radicalised CPM (Maoist).

The Left is all about fractions -- CPI, CPI (Marxist), CPI (Maoist) and numerous groups and factions. Historically, they have had differences over India’s freedom struggle, Partition, the 1962 India-China war, the Naxal movement, the economic model, everything. How will the Left manage so many contradictions when they will surface and what will be the impact on our polity?

One horrible prospect is before us: violence of words and in action, in and outside legislatures, on the streets, in police stations and jails and on university campus, is going to continue. A “Make In India” product, it threatens to derail development.

Returning to sedition, a colonial era law, it has been with us for long and like ghe nationalism concept, has defied and informed, coherent and even more so, a dispassionate debate. We have yet to determine C N Annadurai committed sedition when he demanded a separate Tamil state in 1962. Are not Akali Dal, that campaigns for the release of Punjab militants, Jayalalithaa who wants Rajiv Gandhi’s killers, supporting acts of terrorism that invites the sedition charge?

The Kanhaiya debate threw up an argument that the BJP has been calling everyone from Kanhaiya to Rahul Gandhi “anti-national” is in a political alliance, and did share power, with People’s Democratic Party (PDP) in Jamuu and Kashmir. PDP’s views on talking to the separatists in the state, the hanging of Afzal Guru and on relations with Pakistan are well-known. But that does not prevent BJP hardliners from asking all their critics to “go to Pakistan.”

The concept of nationalism is being put on its head. Sakshi Maharaj calls Nathuram Godse a nationalist. The Honourable Delhi High Court judge who granted conditional bail to Kanhaiya made impassioned remarks that go beyond a judicial order. The “anti-national” bit has, rightly or wrongly, stuck. Now there is a prize for Kanhaiya’s head. And Arun Jaitley claims to have won the “ideological war in JNU.”

All this indicates that the labeling and political name-calling, getting personal at the slightest provocation – or without provocation – is going to persist. We are witnessing strange times. And they are not about to end any time soon.

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