The Bharatiya Janata Party, it seems, is incapable of distinguishing between the offer of legal aid to an accused and the moral justification of a heinous crime. What other conclusion can be drawn from its militant outburst against Mushirul Hasan, Vice Chancellor of Jamia Millia Islamia, for offering legal aid to two students of his university arrested by the police in connection with the recent Delhi bomb blasts? What is dangerous about the demand for his dismissal, apart from its communal motivation, is the attack on a foundational principle of the rule of law and on fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution. The right to legal representation is a vital part of the right to a free trial. Embedded in the idea of providing accused with the means of defending themselves competently is a jurisprudential principle that forms the bedrock of modern law — the presumption of innocence unless the person is proved guilty. The effectiveness of an adversarial legal system such as India’s — where the judge comes to a conclusion after hearing out the prosecution and the defence — depends critically on how evidence is marshalled in support of a person’s case. The high responsibility of providing “equal justice and free legal aid” to all citizens is enshrined in Article 39A of the Constitution, which mandates the state, through suitable legislation, schemes, or other means “to ensure that opportunities for securing justice are not denied to any citizen by reason of economic or other disabilities.” Ironically, the BJP’s spokesperson who denounced the Jamia Millia Vice-Chancellor’s offer of legal aid as “most objectionable” and “despicable” was Ravi Shankar Prasad, an experienced lawyer. He must have known that the attack on the principle of offering legal aid to persons charged with the most heinous crimes had no constitutional leg to stand on. So he shifted ground and falsely accused the central university, which notwithstanding the ‘Islamia’ in its name prides itself on its non-denominational character, of using “taxpayers’ money” to provide legal assistance to those accused of terrorist activities.
What is clear is that Dr Hasan, who is respected not only for his historical scholarship but also for his secular credentials (and ironically, in an earlier chapter in the same university, was targeted by Muslim fundamentalists), has acted by the book in this sensitive case. Offering legal aid to the two students is not just in accordance with the constitutional principle that “opportunities for securing justice are not denied to any citizen by reason of economic or other disabilities.” It is specifically sanctioned by university regulations and precedents and the practice of several universities round the world. Dr Hasan has pointed out that Jamia Millia has, in the past, provided legal aid for accused students and helped them get justice, without any controversy. He has also made it absolutely clear that the legal aid to the two students will come not from central funds channelled through the University Grants Commission — but from Jamia Millia’s own income from student fees and other sources. The BJP’s attempt to communalise the fight against terrorism by insinuating that the offer of legal aid by Jamia Millia Islamia in the latest case amounts to being soft on Islamist terrorism must be strongly condemned.