Kanhaiya Kumar’s totally uncalled for arrest and slapping of the charges of sedition etc. have clouded the issue and furthered the interest of the elements the government claims to rein in. But before we discuss the issue it would be worthwhile to recapitulate the basic facts of the story which have been told and retold and changed somewhat in every telling. No one has come up yet with the theory that there were two editions of Kanhaiya. Otherwise every fact, every video clipping comes in two versions. You can take your pick.
It is beyond dispute that a group of students in the JNU organised a “cultural” evening to celebrate the death anniversary of the martyred Afzal Guru. To an overwhelmingly large number of Indians, he was a terrorist and enemy of the Indian state. Political leaders across the divide had endorsed this view in the immediate aftermath of the attack. The “cultural artists” chanted their determination to fight till the destruction of the Indian state, and felt ashamed that the killers of Afzal were still alive. They concluded by invoking the blessing of Allah for this project.
The slogans need to be quoted in full for the enlarged meaning of “cultural activities”.
Kanhaiya Kumar later distanced himself from the shouting of these slogans and condemned this act. The evening, he said, was meant to commemorate Dr. Ambedkar and reaffirm faith in Indian constitution.
Afzal Guru the “martyr”, was hanged to death when the Congress government was in power, after the entire range of curative options available to an accused in a polity governed by due process of law – from the trial court to the mercy petition before the President of India – were exhausted. Having failed to get a favourable verdict, few would dare indulge in public denunciation of the most sacred of our institutions. Democracy is about building institutions; institutions work in tandem with other institutions and they have to be invested with authority by reposing faith in them and not wrecking them for perceived wrongs. That is our share of the democratic burden. Dr. Ambedkar must have turned in his grave to hear the public denunciation of all that we hold sacred.
Lenin used to ask ironically: “Freedom — yes, but for whom? To do what?”. The idea of free speech is so seductive that it seems wimpish to even suggest caution or moderation in the exercise of this sacred right, but we must wonder whether the democratic idealism provides a standpoint outside of itself to wreck and demolish its very foundational values. No law was violated in the chanting of these slogans, agreed, but are societies run by decrees alone? Are we subject to the prohibition of laws alone? There are no laws against incest. Should that then become an acceptable behaviour? Does good sense and consideration for the feelings of others not curb our freedom of action? I hear that declaring oneself to be anti-national has become the new normal for the enlightened beings, but there are people who would rather be seen dead than being dubbed anti national. If we inhabit a shared space, we have to consider each other’s sensibilities. Kanhaiya Kumar was not unaware of this, as his subsequent condemnation of the incident shows. What was then the mainspring of his action?
According to an apostatic ABVP member , writing in Caravan magazine, there is a hierarchy of intellectual order in the JNU; the Brahminical order consists of those from St. Stephen and Presidency College. Cerebral, articulate and fluent in the langua franca of power discourse – English – their minds organised by the fundamentals of Marxism, enjoyed a hegemony till the upstart ABVP types gate-crashed – perhaps riding pillion on the rise of the rightist politics. “Students in JNU’s history centre divided informally along class lines early on. Apart from a few exceptions, those from elite colleges like St Stephen’s in Delhi and Presidency in Kolkata turned left, while those from small towns were splintered among the left, the ABVP and the Congress’s student wing, the National Students’ Union of India. Apart from my background, it also seemed to me that falling in line with the left would mean acceptance of this intellectual hierarchy. Spurning the system seemed enticing.”
Kashmir is very much on the minds of the Indian people. The ethnic cleansing of the Kashmiri Pandits is an equally emotive issue for an overwhelming number of Indians, but it has never seized the imagination of the progressively oriented JNU( or has it?) because it does not command as much traction as liberation of Kashmir. If we argue by results they were dead right. JNU has become a global symbol of resistance and Kanhaiya Kumar, a nondescript entity from Bihar with no past to reckon with, a martyr to the cause of democracy. Secure in the knowledge that aggressive and institutionally entrenched national and global elite well-versed in the vernacular of law, who exert a tremendous pressure on politics will intervene on their behalf makes such gestures risk free. Prashant Bhushan has already offered his services voluntarily; the likes of Arundhati Roy and Chomsky have given him the thumbs up. If the exercise of freedom of speech was this rewarding, who would flinch form murder? The intellectually unsophisticated security personnel guarding the parliament building seemed to have laid down their lives quite gratuitously when martyrdom comes so cheap.
As an Egyptian poet said,
“What have we not done for our fatherland.
Some have laid down their lives, some made speeches.”