Thursday, January 21, 2021

Free speech at a crossroads

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The recent events at the JNU campus in New Delhi have spoken multitudes about the sharp religious and nationalist fundamentalist divides in certain sections of contemporary India.

On one side are those who believe that free speech is the right of every individual; on the other, far right Hindu fundamentalists who will not tolerate any dissent.
JNU protests.Indian Link
That the Indian media played a leading role in flaming the situation is indeed shameful.
What started this current saga was an on-campus rally to mark the death anniversary of convicted terrorist Muhammad Afsal, who was hanged for his links to the 2001 attack on the Indian Parliament. Whether such a rally should even have been organised is being challenged by the right wing of the BJP, ignoring the fact that BJP is in itself in coalition with the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) in Kashmir which has condemned Afsal’s trial and execution.
The student rally was addressed by Kanhaiya Kumar, President of JNU’s student union. Kumar is a member of the Communist Party of India and his 24-minute speech was heavy with rhetoric on the state of inequality in India. He took the ruling BJP to task on their lack of progress in reaching out to the grassroots of society. At various times in his speech, he condemned those who work against India and terrorism in any form. For keen observers of political discourses, his speech is a wonderful piece of oration.
What was broadcast to the nation was not Kumar’s speech or even highlights, rather what has become clear as “doctored tapes”, showing protestors shouting anti-India slogans. The slogans televised on Zee TV, without verification by the channel, were attributed to Kumar.
Delhi Police arrested Kumar on grounds of sedition and for anti-national tendencies. Further evidence of the strange workings of the law and order situation, was the beating up of Kumar by three advocates in front of police as he was being brought to the courts to answer his charges. Lawyers and BJP supporters assaulted journalists and students as the police refused to intervene. Even the Delhi Police Commissioner BS Bassi was accused of letting his force “be taken over by the goondas of the BJP”.
There seems to be a blurring of lines about how ‘voicing dissent’ should be defined:  is it a vital right in a flourishing democracy, or is it “an assault on the integrity and unity of the nation”, as Home Minister Rajnath Singh has said. The Indian Supreme Court has limited the definition of sedition to speech that is “incitement to imminent lawless action”. Kumar’s speech did not incite as per this definition.
Over the past few days, citizens have turned out in their thousands to protest the heavy handedness of the government. Support for the students has come from as far as Harvard, Oxford and even over 100 academics from Australia who have released a statement condemning the government’s actions.
To quote Lindsay Hughes, Research Analyst, Indian Ocean Research Programme in Australia, “India’s greatest strength, bar none, has been its historic ability to absorb aspects of other cultures, religions and societies and to integrate those into its own while giving them a decidedly Indian flavor… While it may have been politically and militarily subjugated by the British for two hundred years, India left its own impression upon British culture, its language and thinking. It is, sadly, losing that strength due to the myopia shown by a relative few who cannot discern between India’s strength and their own insecurities. Nationalism could easily be, if allowed to get out of hand, a precursor to social collapse. If students raise “seditious” chants on a university campus, they ought to be defeated in debate and discussion. Physical might, violence and coercion will never take the place of persuasion.”
What the ruling BJP needs to do now is: 1) find who doctored the tapes aired on TV; 2) the people shouting the slogans at JNU, and 3) take to task the three lawyers and the policemen involved in the beating of the accused Kanhaiya at Delhi courts.

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Pawan Luthra
Pawan Luthra
Pawan is the publisher of Indian Link and is one of Indian Link's founders. He writes the Editorial section.

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