A great deal has already been written about the arrest of JNU student leader Kanhaiya Kumar and the ensuing national uproar. But the drama highlights a broader danger: the growing evidence that the BJP is orchestrating a deliberate and strategic assault on Indian universities. This assault – disguised by the illusion of a crusade against “anti-nationalism” – is itself anti-national.
Independent thought, uninhibited deliberation, right to dissent, and free speech in institutions of higher education are indispensable to the democratic character of India. However, the recent incidents in two prominent central universities of our country – JNU and earlier the University of Hyderabad, where a Dalit student was driven to suicide – are evidence that we have failed to protect our students and scholars from political interference by individuals and organisations that used arbitrary processes to uproot academic freedom.
The charge of sedition against Kanhaiya and his fellow students may or may not stand up in court, but the sedition law itself is highly problematic and is worded so loosely as to undermine freedom of speech. Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code, a remnant of British colonialism, is in desperate need of revision. The ambiguities in Section 124A have led to its misuse as a means of silencing dissent, with the police arresting a variety of victims from cartoonists to student agitators, ignoring the Supreme Court’s stricter interpretation of sedition as requiring more than just sloganeering.
Last December, I introduced an amendment to 124A as a private member’s bill in the Lok Sabha to clarify and restrict the use of the law to instances in which there is a direct and immediate incitement to violence, as has been interpreted by the Indian Supreme Court as well as judiciaries across the democratic world.
The hysteria that has been whipped up about the “anti-national” slogans of some students overlooks two fundamental issues. First, universities are where young people find themselves – in many cases through engagement, political passion, ideological fervour and personal involvement – in causes larger than their own academic careers. Many – perhaps most – students grow up in the process, and outgrow the more extreme views they adopted out of youthful zeal. Two of my most obdurately leftist classmates at St Stephen’s, for instance, are now conservative pundits associated with the BJP. They would undoubtedly be embarrassed to be reminded of the fervour with which they espoused positions that they would dismiss with scorn today.
Second, and perhaps more important, the Indian state is not so feeble that a few irresponsible slogans shouted by misguided students can destroy it. But undermining the democratic ethos of the Indian Republic can destroy the essence of the state, and of the grand national experiment our nationalist leaders embarked upon nearly seven decades ago. By branding dissent as “anti-national” and so illegitimising it, our BJP rulers are betraying the founding idea of the India that Mahatma Gandhi fought to free.
The events of the past two weeks have highlighted that the sedition law will need to be amended. But the events of the past two years reveal that Amendment alone will not be enough to curtail today’s troubling tendencies. The BJP’s larger political project to bring Indian universities to heel extends far beyond JNU. Their apparent strategy involves a number of troubling behaviours: silencing students who criticise the government’s policies, removing dissenting teachers from their posts, and appointing leadership at universities who are friendly to their political interests while disregarding legitimate academic merit.
The use of the sedition law against Kanhaiya Kumar is but one example of the BJP’s subversion of Indian universities and schools. From Dinanath Batra’s RSS-supported curriculum in Haryana and Gujarat on “moral science” (which, of course, is neither particularly “moral” nor “scientific”) to the politically-driven harassment of Rohith Vemula in Hyderabad and the sacking of Prof. Sandeep Pandey for his dissenting views at Banaras Hindu University, a deeply disturbing pattern emerges which points to an ominous political project.
Dattatreya Hosable, Joint General Secretary of the RSS, declares that “All universities must be purged of all kinds of anti-national elements.” Mr. Hosabale’s regrettable use of the word “purge” in reference to squashing dissent is eerily reminiscent of Stalin’s infamous “Great Purge” of the Soviet Union and Hitler’s “purge” of Jewish elements in Nazi Germany. What’s next – the burning of books the RSS doesn’t agree with?
The university is often the first and foremost target of campaigns that seek to derail democracy. Mao Zedong shut down universities entirely as he launched his Cultural Revolution. The sorry history of 20th century authoritarianism is pockmarked with examples of autocratic rulers recognizing that universities threatened the legitimacy of their rule. To control the universities is to capture the mind of the nation.
Today’s market pressures focus our attention on universities’ role in promoting access to economic opportunity. But we cannot forget the supreme purpose of the university in our republic: to create well-formed minds which can participate in a democracy whose future depends on citizens’ capacity to scrutinize their elected officials. The purpose of the university is to help us expand our minds in service of that democracy. In a deliberative democracy, universities are meant to be hotbeds of argument, debate and dissent rather than centres of conformity.
While our universities are the battlegrounds – the theatre of protests and the target of arrests and censorship – Indian democracy is the real victim of the government’s assault on intellectual freedom. Indian nationalism and Indian democracy are inextricably linked. An attack on one is an attack on the other. One can criticise the government of the day and be loyal to the nation. To define dissent as anti-national is to betray the nationalism of a freedom struggle that was itself built on dissent.
To make India’s democratic experiment work, we must embrace a wider idea of our nation than the narrow conception put forth by chauvinists who are attacking our universities. The wider and more robust notion of an India that accommodates, rather than abandons, dissent and disagreement, can take a few allegedly “anti-national” slogans in stride. Democratic freedom includes the freedom to be wrong.
The BJP’s fear of college students is evidence of their low opinion of the idea of Indian democracy. They believe India to be so frail as to collapse in the face of dissent that characterizes the spirit of the nation in the first place.
An expansive notion of Indian nationalism recognises the centrality of tolerance to the success of our democratic experiment – which, by definition, demands restraint in acting against our political opponents, thus creating room for discourse, progress, and compromise. It is imperative for India, as a youthful democracy, to encourage the spirit of free thought and expression in all educational institutions and uphold the fundamental rights guaranteed under Article 19 of the Constitution.
The flag that our soldiers have died for, even as the JNU disturbances were going on, stands for a larger idea of freedom than the intolerance of our present authorities accommodates. It is time for the government to live up to the ideals embodied in that flag.
Set Kanhaiya free. Let all Indians be free to argue, to dissent and to learn. Indian democracy will only be stronger as a result.
(Dr Shashi Tharoor is a two-time MP from Thiruvananthapuram, the Chairman of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on External Affairs, the former Union Minister of State for External Affairs and Human Resource Development and the former UN Under-Secretary-General. He has written 15 books, including, most recently, India Shastra: Reflections On the Nation in Our Time.)