A day after JNU Student Union President Kanhaiya Kumar's arrest on grounds of sedition, Catch News talked to sociologist Mukul Kesavan to understand the social and cultural implications of this move - and whether there's a new move to campus politics.
Kesavan argues that the desire to control student politics isn't new; what is, instead, is that the BJP is acting like a coordinated Parivar whose attempt to consolidate political power will have a chilling effect on campuses.
Edited excerpts from an interview:
Should there be a law against sedition? Did Kanhaiya deserve it?
I just read Lawrence Liang's piece on the subject and it seems extremely unlikely that what happened in JNU would fall within sedition. There's no evidence of the student president doing or saying anything that meets that standard.
I don't think we should have a law like 124A. If it allows you to haul out people the way the state has done here then it's a ridiculous law. Most countries have a law against treason rather than sedition.
Is this govt taking a narrow view of what universities do? Are they merely about a curriculum and marks, or a space to grow politically and intellectually?
Well, we're reacting to two recent examples; two centrally-funded, high-profile universities in which there has been political intervention in what is essentially campus politics.
I wouldn't say standards of free speech within Indian universities has been particularly elevated in the past, either.
Under the Congress government's rule a bunch of ABVP goons attacked the history department in Delhi University because of a Ramanujam essay; Dinesh Singh, former VC, helped delete that essay on the Ramayana, even with the Congress govt at the centre.
So we've always had governments at the Centre bending to thugs of one sort or another. However, the coordinated maneuvering that seems to be occurring now between the ABVP, BJP and ministers, along with NDA government intervention is genuinely new. In metropolitan universities, the willingness to invoke this kind of political connection and target people you see as your political enemies is new.
Why does campus level student politics threaten the Centre?
It seems to be that in Hyderabad and at JNU, what the BJP is doing is acting like a Parivar with one member of the family helping the other out.
I think they see this as a moment of consolidation with the political power at the Centre. I think the community of organisations that constitute the Sangh Parivar are acting in unison.
We trivialise the question when we ask: is intolerance increasing? What that allows in an argument is discussion of the many different instances of thwarting dissent, whether it is Jayalalitha in Tamil Nadu, Samajwadi Party in UP, Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal. You find thuggish intervention within many university spaces. I've been to Calcutta University when the only political posters you saw were of SFI. De facto politics that was allowed were SFI. So wanting control over campus level politics isn't new.
What is new is the level of oversight. They seem to be choosing their targets in a slightly eccentric way. That the BJP is willing to go after people like Vemula and Kanhaiya, who could be described as people who are poor and who represent the unprivileged isn't clever. Because it is important who they are. I'm surprised that the BJP is behaving with recklessness.
What do you foresee this snowballing into?
I think it's unfortunate that people are going to start thinking about what can and cannot be said within a campus space. I think to use a terrible term, this will have a "chilling effect".
People who occupy university spaces should take a stand for freedom of expression without throwing up their hands and apocalyptically thinking that such freedom is going to come to an end. I'm just surprised that the BJP would brazenly send policemen into campuses and threaten Vice Chancellors. Whatever gains it brings to them in the short term will be counterproductive in the medium term. People don't want university spaces to be pushed around this way.
More in Catch - #JNUcrackdown: Why campuses have become the new battlefields