By arresting Jawaharlal Nehru University Students Union (JNUSU) president Kanhaiya Kumar on shaky sedition charges, the ruling BJP provided a stage to Mr. Kumar, which he used with aplomb after being bailed out on Thursday night.
What could have been a speech to his student constituents turned out to be an address to the nation thanks to the television channels that beamed live from the JNU campus. In parallel, Twitter and Facebook erupted, with the #KanhaiyaKumar trending globally on the micro-blogging site.
For many, who were watching from the comfort of their homes, it could have been a first-time window into the hurly-burly of student politics on the JNU campus, where debate and discuss are virtually part of the mess menu.
In his speech, Kanhaiya was contextual, attacking the Modi government on several fronts and inverting the argument about freedom or aazadi . “ Hum Bharat se aazadi nahin, Bharat mein azadi chahte hain; Bhukmari se aazadi, bhrashtachar se aazadi... RSS se aazadi, Manuvad se aazadi, jativad se aazadi, hum le ke rahenge aazadi (freedom from starvation, freedom from corruption... freedom from the RSS, freedom from caste, freedom from communal thought, we will get our freedom),” he said.
The slogans of Lal Salaam or Red Salute, which seemed to have vanished from the public eye and ear over the years, were heard for long minutes on national television, courtesy a young student leader. It was a very public resurrection for the Left. “Kanhaiya Kumar should not have been arrested at all in the first place… the whole episode at JNU has catalysed the national debate on reform — reform, and not repeal — of the law pertaining to sedition,” Sudheendra Kulkarni, former media adviser to Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, told this newspaper.
According to Mr. Kulkarni, a vibrant political and ideological debate in India had begun again. “This should be welcomed so long as all sides respect their opponents’ democratic rights, keep an open mind to welcoming what is good in the opponents’ points of view, and, above all, keep their ideas and actions nonviolent,” he added.
There is little doubt that the arrest of Kanhaiya (against whom the charge of raising slogans has been rejected by a Delhi government inquiry) and other student activists like Umar Khalid and Anirban Bhattacharya raise questions about the freedom of expression.
“The government has acted in a senseless manner,” D.P. Tripathi, a former JNU president and Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) leader, said about the sedition charge against Kanhaiya. “There should be no government interference in universities. Our universities should be left to administer themselves,” Mr. Tripathi told The Hindu .
Interestingly, there is a previous case of censure against Anirban Bhattacharya by JNU authorities last year where he organised a “public talk” in the Tapti hostel mess on February 11, 2015, despite the fact that permission for the talk had been revoked.
“This act of Mr. Anirban Bhattacharya is very serious in nature… and calls for strict disciplinary action against him. However, keeping his career prospects in mind, the Vice-Chancellor has taken a somewhat lenient view in the matter,” the Chief Proctor of the University said in an office order at the time Mr. Bhattacharya was fined Rs. 5,000 and shifted out of his hostel.
There’s a different Vice-Chancellor and administration, which instead of dealing with the issue as a disciplinary one, chose to call in the police at the behest of the BJP’s youth wing, the Akhil Bhartiya Vidyarthi Parishad. Kanhaiya could well have been spared from arrest and the BJP avoided alienating civil society had the current Vice-Chancellor M. Jagadesh Kumar dealt with the issue like his predecessor S.K. Sopory.