University campuses are traditionally spaces for discussion, dissent and reinforcing of democratic values - but of late Indian university campuses are more battleground than breeding ground for ideas.
First, it was Hyderabad Central University (HCU). Today it Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) being questioned by the Centre over "anti-national" activities. Catch spoke with Happymon Jacob, associate professor at JNU, about sedition, the imposition of ideologies within educational spaces and whether the present government feels threatened by student politics.
What do you feel about the arrests on charges of sedition?
It's not just an overreaction by the Government and Delhi Police, it also has no legal standing and goes against the Supreme Court guidelines on sedition.
In Kedarnath vs State of Bihar, and the many cases that followed, the SC made it clear that you cannot arrest someone on the basis of speech unless it leads to violence and public disorder.
This has become yet another incident in the systematic charactering of autonomous universities, be it Hyderabad Central University or Chennai IIT, where they are uneasy about serving non-vegetarian food.
It also tells you about this government's double standards on anti-nationalism and dissent.
Look at the issue of Nathuram Godse being venerated as a hero by many right wing students in this country. Is the Government taking any action on that? If they are not being slapped with sedition charges how can this JNU boy be arrested?
That too a boy who simply never uttered that slogan. We don't approve of "India ki barbadi hogi" slogans and he himself said that in his statement he made to court.
Having said that, in a university campus all kinds of divergent viewpoints must co-exist. We have every right to question some of our most cherished notions about politics, nationalism and justice of this country. If we don't do it, who will? It's our job to do so. It doesn't lead to any misguided action.
In my classroom, I critique the Government of India. Will I be arrested on charges of sedition next?
Is there need for a sedition law at all?
I am completely against a sedition law, we should abolish it. It is a colonial contribution to Indian jurisprudence. It doesn't speak well of a democracy. But even if parliament thinks it is necessary, there have to be strict conditions attached. For instance, sedition can only be invoked if a person is found to be engaged in anti-national acts, meaning by which a person is found to have clear links with a terrorist organization. Just because a person says Afzal Guru was unconstitutionally hanged doesn't mean he is a terrorist and should be arrested. It's a critique and that right must exist.
Was Smriti Irani right in invoking Bharat Mata?
Only the court can make this judgement, ministers have no business calling a protest anti-national. That's exactly what they did, including in the case of HCU. These are silly statements. I belong to an India that is divergent, secular and inclusive. All kinds of thought processes will have to be accepted. That's part of my milieu and culture. This is a very exclusivist notion of what constitutes the idea of India.
Why is the central govt repeatedly involving itself in activities within autonomous institutions? Are they threatened by student politics?
In the BJP's scheme of things, whether it is HCU or JNU, we have always spoken against the State narrative - be it secularism, on Kashmir or India-Pak aggression. We don't fall in line. When you don't fall in line you become a target.
Smriti Irani should be improving the education system in this country, making sure there are many more trained teachers to educate this country. She really has no business worrying about who is national or anti-national. They definitely do see student political groups voicing dissent as a threat that needs thwarting.
The present Government seems to believe educational institutions are spaces where students are only supposed to study and 'get good marks', not as a space where students can grow politically and intellectually and question the status quo...
Exactly. Theirs is a very narrow view of what education is. In a place like JNU where we teach social sciences, our students are trained to challenge established notions. And they do that.
Education is a lot more than getting good marks and a good pay package. It is about enlightenment and opening one's mind to different schools of thought.
How do you think the JNU situation should be handled going forward?
They should allow the University's enquiry to continue. Based on that enquiry report there should be action. People have uttered slogans that are clearly anti-India in nature and the University has to take critical action on those involved. We have legal recourse within the University system. Whenever there is such a case a student may be charged with a fine of Rs 5,000 or be debarred for a semester. The police have no business entering a University campus unless or until there is violence and bloodshed. JNU knows how to handle its student politics.
Happymon Jacob is Associate Professor of Disarmament Studies at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University