The Union government’s response to the recent developments at Jawaharlal Nehru University betrays a disquieting intent to create an atmosphere of fear amongst its students and teachers. The rationale for the police action was an event to mark the anniversary of the execution of Afzal Guru, a convict in the Parliament attack case, and it is alleged that slogans were raised against India’s sovereignty. However, unless there was actual incitement to violence, there really was no case for the police to swoop down on the campus, arrest students, and slap charges of sedition and criminal conspiracy on them. The Delhi Police seemed to have taken the cue from a remark made by Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh that “anti-national activities” would not be tolerated, and invoked the draconian pre-Constitution law of sedition. The arrest of Kanhaiya Kumar, president of the JNU Students’ Union, who belongs to the All-India Students’ Federation, an organisation known to be affiliated to the CPI, is quite inexplicable, except in terms of the theory that he was chosen for his political antipathy to the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, the RSS’s student wing. Neither his union nor the party to which it is affiliated supports separatism in Kashmir or opposes parliamentary democracy. The union has in fact disassociated itself from the views expressed by a small group of students who organised the event. Yet, an impression is sought to be created that Mr. Kumar and many other like-minded student activists in JNU are ‘anti-national’.
Once again, Section 124-A of the Indian Penal Code, which makes sedition punishable with life imprisonment, has been casually invoked despite the Supreme Court repeatedly cautioning that even words indicating disaffection against the state will not constitute the offence, unless there is a call for violence or a pernicious tendency to create public disorder. It is difficult to dismiss the police action as a routine or expected response by the state to reports of allegedly anti-national speeches. The JNU campus nurtures political opinion of all shades. It is a haven for legitimate dissent and a locus of inevitable differences. Its atmosphere should not be undermined by some to whom its intellectual space is an eyesore. In recent times, the suicide of a scholar in the University of Hyderabad roiled the student community across the country and created an upsurge against the ruling dispensation wielding its ideological influence on campus activities. The misconceived manner in which Afzal Guru was commemorated by a handful of JNU students should not be a provocation for tarring the students’ union with the brush of alleged anti-nationalism. The government should not sense in these developments an opportunity to suppress all dissent and seek to kill the ideological orientation of some student groups. Deviation from its own notion of nationalism cannot be treated as sedition. The line between dissent and treason may be thin to some, but the ability to distinguish between the two is a constitutional duty of the state. And given the history of its misuse and its incompatibility with a modern Constitution, Section 124-A of the IPC ought to be junked altogether.