JNU Row: Either with us or against us

Sukumar Muralidharan | Updated on January 20, 2018

Freedom under fire: Students staging a protest at the JNU campus in New Delhi on February 15, 2016. R.V. Moorthy/ The Hindu

Sukumar Muralidharan

By charging dissenting students with sedition, the current administration has done everything that the Constituent Assembly feared

Sedition is a term with a ring of menace, carrying a hint of severe punishments for imagined slights to an entity mostly absent from citizen’s lives. In rationalising the arrest of a student from the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) on sedition charges, Delhi Police Commissioner Bhim Sain Bassi has at various times quoted faithfully from the book of law. Though he has proved a good clerk in the Macaulayan sense, he has failed to make a case that the JNU events fit the template. Bassi helped his image very little by guilelessly claiming that the police had several hours of video footage in its possession, which were being scrutinised for evidence of other ‘blasphemous’ utterances.

Sedition and blasphemy are close cousins in the imagination of Delhi’s police chief. That is not how students and teachers at JNU, with its long tradition of critical thinking and activism, see things. In the vastness of India, every day has a special significance. And mindful of its resonances in Kashmir, students of JNU organised an event for February 9, third anniversary of the day Afzal Guru was executed, ostensibly to appease the ‘collective conscience’ of the Indian nation.

Observances that challenge the dominant narrative are routinely carried out in Kashmir despite the heavy security blanket that shrouds the region. In the air of freedom of a university campus, it became an occasion for a counter-mobilisation by rival students heady on the brew of hyper-nationalism the current regime purveys. A melee of confused sloganeering ensued, some of it captured on phone-cam videos.

Matters would have rested there until the next contentious anniversary came around, except for the media and in particular one English news channel that claims a righteous monopoly on truth. While stirring the pot and calling for a crackdown on what it termed seditious conduct, this channel for good effect, juxtaposed the JNU events with the funeral held for an Indian army soldier killed in an avalanche in Siachen, a victim of the permanent state of war in Kashmir.

What cause really was served by this quest for cheap applause? As it pumped up the public outrage in its lust for ratings, the channel could not have been unaware that charges of sedition had been brought against a newspaper belonging to the same business group as recently as June 2008, and that it had taken four long years to earn exculpation.

The Ahmedabad edition of the newspaper had just run a series of stories on a newly appointed city police commissioner, pointing to a service record riddled with abuses of power and dangerous liaisons with the underworld. The import of one of the stories was fairly clear: that prime position in the police hierarchy was a reward for official services rendered in covering up the premeditated murder of underworld hatchet-man Sohrabuddin Sheikh and his wife.

Charges of sedition and criminal conspiracy were an immediate reward, implicating the publisher, resident editor and a reporter of the newspaper. The trio were granted bail pending full hearing of the case, gaining as employees of a large media group; a privilege denied to journalists who work at great risk in India’s most turbulent zones such as Chhattisgarh and the North-East.

The police official who brought the charges, meanwhile, served out his term, retiring in March 2009 and securing a happy sinecure in a university training security personnel. His end was served by imposing the legal process on a critical newspaper, which in the Indian system is punishment in itself.

In April 2012, the Gujarat High Court finally ruled on a bunch of applications seeking the quashing of sedition charges. In granting these applications, the High Court went by well-established judicial precedent. It could not have been otherwise.

While debating the fundamental rights, India’s Constituent Assembly (CA) made a special point of omitting ‘sedition’ as a circumstance in which free speech could be restricted. A second important change was to qualify every restriction imposed on freedom by a requirement of ‘reasonableness’. This introduced a test akin to that of ‘due process’, where judicial review would be applicable as a fetter on arbitrary exercises of power. The CA also resolved to delete every legal provision of the penal code that was inconsistent with the new charter of liberty.

The constitutional historian Granville Austin described this phase of debate as a triumph of ‘liberty’ over ‘bureaucracy’. It was in this spirit that the Allahabad High Court in 1960 held section 124, which defines the offence of sedition, as a violation of constitutional freedoms. In further hearings before the Supreme Court, the clause was reinstated subject to its invocation exclusively in situations of imminent violence and public disorder. This was the foundation on which the Supreme Court ruled in the Balwant Singh case in 1995, that shouting separatist slogans in a public space did not attract sanctions under the sedition law.

These judgments continue to hold the field though they are often lost in the hiatus between vindictive executive action and judicial review. In 2012, the Gujarat High Court summoned up these as also all other relevant precedents to set three newspaper employees at liberty from the arbitrary charges laid against them.

These are hard won freedoms, just as easily snatched away. And in today’s media environment of ‘war of all against all’, it is almost as if freedom is a rationed commodity which every entity has to corner by plumbing the most sordid depths. It is a game in which there can be no winners. But that realisation may well come too late to be of much use.

(Sukumar Muralidharan is an independent writer and researcher based in Gurgaon and Shimla)

Published on February 19, 2016

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