By Laila Khaled Bhat
In the wake of police crackdown on Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) at New Delhi and subsequent arrest of JNU Student Union President Kanhaiya Kumar in connection with organizing a cultural programme protesting the hanging of Maqbool Bhat and Afzal Guru, the JNU faculty and students have come together to fight back. However, the statements that came from the JNU faculty and student body are somewhere faltering. Unfortunately, these bodies are towing the same old line what Indian mainstream political parties have always chosen to do when it comes to debate on free speech. Who should decides what falls within the limits of constitutional freedom of expression? Who decides ‘Bharat ki barbadi’ or ‘Kashmir ki Azaadi’ amount to exceeding the right to free speech? Shocking it is the JNU faculty and student body (who espouse the idea of JNU as democratic and free space) too are calling these slogans divisive and unacceptable. Statements from intellectuals from outside JNU are also branding these statements as objectionable. Is not that free speech and its limits is one of the most slippery slope arguments in jurisprudence? Arguing more conservatively, it is for the court to decide what is divisive and objectionable and what is not.
The ‘Save JNU’ campaign launched by the JNU faculty and students after 10 February’s police action is, to be precise, not good enough. In the anxiousness of safeguarding and preserving the free and democratic JNU, we are already conceding a lot. After all, who are these students who have been named by the ABVP and the Police? They are among the best students of the university who think death penalty is regressive and should be abolished; who think fair trial is one of the fundamentals of procedural justice; who think reservation system is one of the measures of affirmative action which is required in a country where caste is practiced for thousands of years; who think the political promises need to be kept and who believe in inclusive societies. In short, these students are the face of free and democratic JNU and are products of its vibrant culture and pedagogy, where they are taught and trained to take a critical look at the social, political and economic structures. JNU faculty and students are known for taking positions on Palestine, Ethnic Minorities, Dalits etc. So what is wrong with the idea of organizing a programme on Kashmir?
If we want to reclaim the space then how can we not ask the question what Bharat means to the most marginalized who live in the most dismal conditions in and under Bharat. Such people are indeed the victims of state terrorism, ecological destruction, corporate loot of resources, land grabs, caste discrimination etc
If we want to reclaim the space then how can we not ask the question what Bharat means to the most marginalized who live in the most dismal conditions in and under Bharat. Such people are indeed the victims of state terrorism, ecological destruction, corporate loot of resources, land grabs, caste discrimination etc. So should we not demand barbadi of their miseries? Should we not demand azaadi from such condition? To call voices of the tormented, brutalized and most exploited divisive, unacceptable, objectionable etc. is to give into the vocabulary and politics of RSS, ABVP and their allies.
Therefore, either the JNU faculty and student body be willing to accept that we do not want JNU to be a free and democratic space for expression or resist all the attempts to scuttle this free space. If one has to monitor what one should or should not utter for the fear of exceeding the vague limits set by the Constitution of India on free speech then how does it matter if police stays out of JNU, barges in, or may be raises bunkers inside or for that matter install CCTVs?
In addition, such posturing by the JNU faculty and students body is detrimental to the students who have been named by the ABVP and booked by the Delhi Police. This puts these students in a precarious situation where the left, right and center are at one side and these ‘poor’ students on the other. The ‘Save JNU’ campaign would not be successful unless the students who have been booked are also supported and saved. We need to ask the question: JNU for whom?
In the Hyderabad Central University (HCU), where five dalit students were expelled and humiliated by the university authorities led RohitVemula, one among the five students to commit suicide. Among many protests by the students bodies the JNU students supported one such campaign named ‘We are not five’. By sidelining our student at JNU booked by police and leaving them to the mercy of state machinery, we are going against the very spirit of solidarity we expressed for the HCU students. In the present context where JNU has been converted into a cantonment and the trauma that students community in general and students named by ABVP in particular are undergoing another suicide is not a remote possibility. .
I am not oblivious that the present regime has gone out on an assault on JNU as such. The police action for which India’s Home Minister himself directed the Delhi Commissioner of Police is, as most of us understand, an attack on JNU that the Right Wing perceives as a den of terrorist and anti-national activities. However, we should also understand that whatever little resistance that comes against the neoliberal fascist political forces comes from the corners like JNU. However, I fear in our effort to save JNU we must not lose our ‘miscreant’ students. In the present scenario, it is highly necessary that JNU faculty and student body demand to put an end the witch-hunt of these students and demand an immediate release of the students arrested and all charges against them dropped unconditionally. Next day we will have a programme on Kashmir! Save JNU!
The writer is a doctoral candidate at JNU