Delhi has seen upsurges of the young and idealistic before – in the anti-corruption movement and in the anti-rape movement. Those skeptical of seeing hope of a political awakening of the young in those protests, have asked if the young were merely dancing to tunes played by a supportive media?
Well, the sea of young people on the streets of Delhi on 18th February should reassure us and renew our hope and confidence in the political good sense of the young. Defying a vicious high-decibel campaign against ‘anti-national slogans in JNU’ led by the Modi Government and amplified aggressively by much of the media, an estimated 15000 students from Delhi’s many Universities marched to express solidarity with JNU. The fear of being branded ‘anti-national’ which is the Government’s trump card for a chilling effect on free speech and activism, simply failed to work. The students demanded the unconditional release of the JNUSU President Kanhaiyya Kumar and withdrawal of all charges against the other five students including JNUSU General Secretary Rama Naga, former JNUSU office bearers Ashutosh and Anant Prakash Narayan, and students Anirban Bhattacharya and Umar Khalid. What was most reassuring was their sense of indignation at the Islamophobic incitement of hatred against Umar Khalid, one of the organizers of the 9th February event at JNU.
By now, it is clear that many of the videos being shown as proof of ‘anti-national’ activities in JNU are doctored. The slogan of ‘Pakistan Zindabad’ was probably never raised at all. Another video showing Kanhaiyya shouting slogans for Kashmir’s ‘Azaadi’ have now turned out to be fake – his slogans sought freedom from casteism and communalism. One ‘News’ channel ran a story of an ‘IB report’ proving ‘Jaish links’ of Umar Khalid –intelligence and Home Ministry officials have denied it as “a figment of someone’s imagination.”
It is such figments of the fevered Sangh imagination that have led to eight students (the six named above as well as a JNUSU School Convener Shweta Raj and GSCASH representative Aishwarya Adhikari) being debarred from academic activities, and hunted by the police. ‘Why are they absconding?’ bay some anchors. The mob attacks in Patiala Court, blessed by the Police Commissioner and his boss the Home Minister, threats by the MLA to ‘shoot dead’ these students, the posters inciting violence against them on the city’s walls are signs that the media-fuelled hate-campaign has endangered the lives of these students. In such circumstances, if the JNUSU Vice President Shehla Rashid leads the movement from the front, it is a remarkable act of courage and commitment.
While the case of ‘sedition’ against Kanhaiyya begins to look legally untenable and unable to stand its ground even in public perception, the heat is being turned towards others. This is the basis for the hunt for the other activists and raid on homes of Kashmiri students in Delhi.
Organising an event to protest Afzal Guru’s execution can hardly be a crime, else one would have to arrest many legal luminaries and political leaders. As for the slogan of Kashmir’s Azaadi, it is undoubtedly one of the most universal slogans in the Kashmir Valley. Before arresting students for raising these slogans on campuses, perhaps the BJP should ask its erstwhile and would-be J&K ally the PDP whether it will condemn the ‘pro-Afzal’ and ‘Kashmir freedom’ slogans? How can the same slogans and sentiments be selectively seditious depending on whether they are raised by PDP or by students in JNU?
The slogans raised by former JNUSU President and AISA leader Ashutosh Kumar try to persuade Delhi’s students to engage and empathise with Kashmir’s urge for freedom by linking it with slogans for freedom of women and of every citizen. The slogans raised by Kanhaiyya in the 11th February video, from a different political vantage point, attempt something similar.
The slogans for ‘Bharat ki barbadi’ and ‘Bharat ke tukde honge hazaar’ – raised by a few – should be condemned not because they are ‘anti-national’ (a term of meaningless abuse) but because they choke off any room for empathy and meaningful political engagement, thereby defeating the very purpose of the event organized by Umar and his friends, which was to persuade Delhi students to feel the pain and hear the voices of people from ‘The Country Without A Post Office.’
Slogans and political events are not sedition. JNU students held placards in the march saying ‘We Argue, We Listen, We Debate, - We Are JNU.’ India should tell all its dissenting and contentious voices, its oppressed castes, its workers, peasants, students, minorities, and all the people from Kashmir or Manipur or Nagaland, to our neighbours, ‘We Argue, We Listen, We Debate.’ That willingness of Indians to listen, engage and empathise, to say ‘Not In Our Name’ to media trials and capital punishment for Akzal or Yakub, to fake encounters, to Army and police rapes, political massacres and pogroms, would bring us closer to political solutions for long-festering questions. Rohith Vemula of HCU, or Kanhaiyya, Rama, Ashutosh, Anant, Anirban or Umar of JNU, are not ‘anti-national’ for seeking to do so.