Dictionary defines "sedition" as any action, especially in speech or writing, promoting discontent or rebellion. It also mentions that it is an "archaic" word. India is one of the few democratic countries which has a sedition law. Like many other laws, it was drafted by the British to deal with those clamouring for freedom. Its paternity can rightly be bestowed on the much-maligned Macaulay.
All the top national leaders from Mahatma Gandhi to Jawaharlal Nehru to Jayaprakash Narayan were arrested under this law. The sedition law was removed from the British statute but it was retained in India so that the government could conveniently use it against dissenters.
When Narendra Modi came to power, his government made a statement that thousands of archaic laws that remained part of the statute would be consigned to the dustbins. I thought the sedition law would also be included among them. Far from that, it is being wielded against some students in Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi.
Under the law, sedition is a serious crime in that the person accused of it can be given life imprisonment. Now what happened at JNU? There are as many versions of the event as there are television channels. In the worst-case scenario, some students and non-students shouted anti-India slogans somewhere on the JNU campus.
Let me make it clear that I do not approve of such slogans but then wishes are not horses. The point is, is the Indian state which has a 1.21 billion population so fragile that it would crumble under the weight of the slogans raised at JNU? No, it will not. They could be dismissed as a looney fringe group.
And that is precisely what the Delhi Police did. Its representatives were there to keep an eye on the students. The Intelligence Bureau was also there. They might have got bored and had gone away with nothing to write home about. This was the situation on the first day of the event.
As it happened, a break-away faction of a group of students professing Maoism had sought permission to hold a discussion on Agha Shahid Ali's (1949-2001) anthology of poems entitled The Country Without A Post Office. There was no mention of observing the third anniversary of the hanging of Afzal Guru.
I read some portions of the anthology which I found very powerful and evocative. Says the poet in his prologue, "Each fall the women gather Chinar leaves, singing what the hills have reechoed for four hundred years, the songs of Habba Khatun, the peasant girl who became the queen.
"When her husband was exiled from the Valley by the Moghul king Akbar, she went among the people with her sorrow. Her grief, alive to this day, in her own roused the people into frenzied opposition to Moghul rule. And since then Kashmir has never been free". This is the broad canvas of the poem. The author was inspired by the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam, who was "killed" by the Stalinist regime.
The Country Without A Post Office is an imaginary nation which the poet names as Petersburg where all those who were exiled are destined to assemble. In fact, the poet quotes the Russian dissident when he says, "we shall meet again, in Petersburg".
The event would have passed off as uneventfully as any other. That is when the ABVP, which belongs to the Sangh Parivar, complained to the university authorities and the permission for the event was withdrawn at the eleventh hour. However, the students went ahead with the meeting.
Many agent-provocateurs also stepped in to make the atmosphere vicious. Now who shouted anti-national slogans is a matter of dispute. There are also videos which show the ABVP supporters shouting such slogans. Such tactics are common.
Last fortnight some people were arrested in Karnataka for raising Pakistani flags. They were promptly arrested and they turned out to be members of a three-letter organisation. When a confrontation between the ABVP and those celebrating a country without post office appeared imminent, a group of students led by JNU Students' Union President Kanhaiya Kumar intervened.
He gave an extempore speech which I heard on YouTube. It was a great speech, hard-hitting and to the point. He might have been merciless in his criticism of the Sang Parivar but there was not a single word which could be described as seditious. For once I realised how a student from the CPI, which is fast disappearing from India's political map, could get elected in JNU, a citadel of the Marxists.
If he is around, he could be elected president again like CPM Politburo member Prakash Karat who was elected twice. In a way it explained why he was specifically targeted. Mark the point that the policemen who were present on the campus did not deem it necessary to file an FIR against the "anti-national sloganeers", forget Kumar.
The police swung into action only when East Delhi MP Maheish Girri, who is the right-hand man of Art of Living founder Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, complained to the police about the "anti-national meeting". The ABVP also knocked on the doors of the police.
Soon, the police swung into action and arrested Kumar and slapped charges of sedition on him. He was definitely more sinned against than sinning. A doctored video that showed him repeatedly demanding azadi (freedom) became viral in social media.
Any person with some common sense could conclude that it was a doctored video. I saw the full video, again, on YouTube which showed Kumar demanding "azadi" from injustice, from corruption, from Manuvadis etc. The police could have struck against the fabricators who were out to foment trouble.
Instead, the ABVP workers and those supporting them tried to threaten all those who rose to defend Kumar. Political leaders like Binoy Viswam, a former minister of Kerala, were manhandled. They met Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh who repeated that he had evidence that all this was the handiwork of terrorists. He was not prepared to listen to leaders like Sitaram Yechury.
Worse things were enacted in Patiala Court premises where Kumar would have been lynched to death by a gang of the black-gowned. They even attacked the group of lawyers sent specifically by the Supreme Court to report about the situation there.
For once the nation saw the sad spectacle of the officers of the court, as the lawyers are called, taking the law into their own hands. The police were also found to be hand-in-glove with them. They could not even protect Kumar from the desperadoes who were able to kick and punch him.
I wondered, was this how patriotism and nationalism were expressed? I could dismiss those who shouted slogans at JNU as a looney lot but at the court premises those who took the law into their own hands included an MLA. Their conduct was far more unbecoming of the profession they represented than that of the students.
One name that often figures in the discussions is that the students observed the third death anniversary of Afzal Guru. In a country where the assassin of Mahatma Gandhi is venerated by those professing faith to Hindutva and in whose memory temples are to be constructed, it is surprising that they object to any memory of Afzal Guru.
I do not consider him a leader, let alone a role model for the youth even in Kashmir. Yet, I was one of those who wrote against the manner in which he was dealt with. Among the MPs who sought clemency for him was the BJP's Shatrughan Sinha. The People's Democratic Party with which the BJP is in alliance in Jammu and Kashmir had opposed the hanging of Afzal Guru.
If the BJP can break bread with a party like the PDP which opposed the hanging, why should it bother about someone shouting slogans in his favour? They want attention and by taking action against them, the government has played into their hands.
Guru was convicted for his involvement in the "conspiracy” to attack Parliament, though all the others similarly accused by the police were found to be innocent and released. Since the highest court of the land found him "guilty” and worthy of capital punishment, let it be assumed that justice was done in his case.
While awarding the severest punishment for Guru, the Supreme Court said, "The incident, which resulted in heavy casualties, had shaken the entire nation and the collective conscience of the society will only be satisfied if the capital punishment is awarded to the offender.”
It was the first time in Independent India’s history that a person was hanged to satisfy the "collective conscience of the society” and not in accordance with the law of the land. In all civilised societies there are certain traditions followed before and after the hanging of a person.
It is customary to inform the family about the timing of the execution so that it can receive the body. But in Afzal Guru's case, the jail authorities sent a letter by "Speed Post” to his wife, informing her about the President’s rejection of his mercy petition and the date and time of the execution.
In these days of instant communication, the purpose of informing the family by "snail mail” was questionable. As was only to be expected, the letter reached the family two days after the hanging. This was to facilitate burying the body in the Tihar Jail premises on the specious plea that the family had not turned up to receive it.
While those who planned the dubious strategy have certainly succeeded, it has not shown the Indian state in a good light. The heavens would not have fallen if Guru was allowed to spend a few minutes with his wife and child a day before the execution. Similarly, they should have been allowed to carry the body to Srinagar. Disrespect to dead body is considered sinful.
Why did the state maintain so much secrecy? It probably thought that if the body was allowed to be carried to Srinagar or Sopore, his native place, it would have inflamed passions. What it does not realise is that in the main graveyard in Srinagar, there is an area dedicated to the "martyrs” and he would at best have been buried there.
India behaved like the US when it buried the body of Al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden deep in the Mediterranean Sea. Surely, it could have conducted itself better by strictly following the jail manual that describes the way in which a condemned prisoner should be treated.
Amnesty International could not be faulted when it said the "execution indicates a disturbing and regressive trend towards executions shrouded in secrecy and the resumption of death penalty use in India”. After quietly suspending the practice of execution for several years, the nation has placed hanging, instead of justice, on fast track.
In doing so, it did not go by any chronological order. For instance, the ‘killers’ of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi who had also been sentenced to death could not be hanged because of political protest from Tamil Nadu. The charge against Guru is that he took part in a "conspiracy”.
There is another ‘conspiracy’ case related to the destruction of the Babri Masjid in 1992. It resulted in riots in which hundreds of people were killed but the Indian criminal justice system has not succeeded in bringing the guilty to book.
The state should at all times uphold the rule of law, irrespective of the political, religious or caste affiliations of the accused. Alas, it failed in the case of Afzal Guru.
HRD Minister Smriti Irani, whose intervention in Hyderabad University, led to the suicide of Rohith Vemula has struck again. This time she wants all Central Universities to have a national flag fluttering at all times on their campuses. She does not know that there is a flag code which has to be followed every time the flag is hoisted and brought down.
In the Army it is the regimental flags which are flown at all times. The national flag is flown only on occasions like the Independence Day and the Republic Day. In the government school where I studied, the flag was hoisted on such national holidays. Not otherwise.
The government and the ruling party seem to believe that JNU is an alien territory. It is one of India's most prestigious universities whose alumni include Union Commerce Minister Nirmala Seetharaman and foreign secretary Subrahmanyam Jaishankar. The admission process is such that there are students from all corners of the country belonging to all strata of society.
The students have traditionally been left liberals. JNU has a certain quality which makes the students the "argumentative Indians" to quote Prof Amartya Sen. It is the only university where the students respond to events like the Jasmine Revolution with as much favour as when they protest against the legless chicken curry served at the canteen.
Most of the so-called revolutionaries are the ones who quietly use the scholarship money and the facilities for research to secretly appear for the Civil Service examination. In fact, I was amused to read that Kumar also wanted to become an IAS officer.
The way the spokesmen of the ruling party were describing the university gave the impression that it was an enemy territory. It is far from that. It has produced some of India's greatest minds.
One of my friends Satheeshna Babu, an alumni of JNU, had this to say about his alma mater: "I was part of that generation of JNU which had seen an unprecedented transformation on the campus coinciding with many crucial happenings in the country.
"The collapse of the Berlin wall, the disintegration of the USSR, the rollout of the new economic policy in the country, the great Tiananmen killings, the Iraq-Kuwait war and the capture of Saddam, Mandal Commission and self-immolation, the demolition of the Babri Masjid and the waxing and waning of the Rao regime.
"The Tiananmen killings and the Mandal agitation literally split the campus vertically. My memory is still fresh on the month-long passionate debate on these issues. Ideological views and differences were too sharp and nobody gave any scope for the other to hit and run! We all have relished those debates. No one raised the muscle nor the kind of bullying that we are witnessing these days. I would consider that phase as the most challenging in JNU's trajectory".
There was a time when the ABVP members were ashamed of admitting their Sanghi connection. Many of them preferred the nomenclature of Free Thinkers to hide their khaki knickers. Now that power is in their hands, they want to browbeat anybody who opposes them into submission. Hence the war against JNU, aided and abetted by suit-boot-wearing television anchors who shout down dissent.
The real anti-nationals are those who earn thousands of crores of rupees through corruption, create riots claiming to avenge historical wrongs and seek police help to terrorise students. Alas, they escape while Kanhaiya Kumar has to cool his heels in a jail.
The writer, a senior journalist, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Courtesy: Indian Currents