On framing JNU for an imaginary crime

rs21 is pleased to republish  Aditya Sarkar‘s article on the vicious attacks of the far right Indian government on students and academics at Jawahalal Nehru University in New Delhi. These attacks have met with growing protests by students and academics. This article was originally published on kafila.org. Some editorial explanations  have been added to the original text. 

Indian students shout slogans during a protest at the Jawaharlal Nehru University against the arrest of a student union leader in New Delhi, India, Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2016. Students, journalists and teachers protested in the Indian capital Tuesday after a student union leader's arrest and subsequent violence by Hindu nationalists. The uproar has once again sparked allegations that Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party are displaying intolerance and cracking down on political dissent in the name of patriotism. (AP Photo /Tsering Topgyal)

Indian students  protest at  Jawaharlal Nehru University against the arrest of a student union leader in New Delhi

JNU has entered an indefinite state of siege. Police have been swarming all over campus, raiding hostels, picking up students and interrogating them. The Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad  [the ABVP, the student wing of the far right RSS], predictably, have been directing them to the lairs of ‘anti-national elements’. When immense demonstrations of public solidarity with the accused students were organized, ABVP activists have attacked these, in one case mounting a violent physical assault on a visiting speaker. The JNU administration has gone to the extent of cutting off the power supply to the microphones used at a protest meeting. At Patiala House on Monday the 15th of February, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s MPs [BJP] (and what appear to be a group of lawyers have assaulted JNU students, faculty and supporters in full view of the police, with what can only be regarded as smug impunity. More than one observer has remarked that this is the Emergency all over again.

It is clear that the arrayed forces of the central government are pitted against a campus which has long been an object of hatred for the Right. There’s no telling how matters will develop in the days and weeks to come. So it might be necessary to step back a bit and consider the sequence of events that led to the current situation.

In the past month, JNU students organized a protest meeting which raised the issue of Kashmiri rights, and drew attention – just as Rohith Vemula’s protest in Hyderabad had done – to the execution of Afzal Guru in 2013. Since the mainstream news outlets systematically censor any attempt to reopen that extremely murky case, it’s worth reminding ourselves of precisely why the execution was so controversial. The terrorist attack on Parliament in December 2001 produced a police investigation on which serious doubt was cast from the beginning. Afzal Guru’s laptop and mobile phone, key pieces of evidence, had not been sealed prior to investigation. One of the other accused in the case, a Delhi University lecturer (who was later emphatically acquitted) was viciously framed by Zee News, which used the police charge-sheet to make a documentary ‘establishing’ his guilt. The court proceedings were even more revealing. The Supreme Court admitted that there was no hard evidence to conclusively establish Afzal Guru’s involvement in criminal conspiracy. But these admissions were merely qualifications to what was perhaps the most extraordinary decision in the history of the judiciary in independent India. Afzal Guru was eventually hanged in 2013 on the basis that only this would appease ‘the collective conscience of the nation’.
The truth of the Parliament attack will probably never be known in its entirety. So it is not just reasonable, but also necessary, that there should be a permanent shadow cast retrospectively on the entire case. Anybody who gets beyond the jingoistic fog will start asking serious questions, and this is precisely what the students at both Hyderabad and JNU did. The doubts they gave voice to have repeatedly been voiced in national and global media over the last decade. It’s important to remember this, because some leading television news outlets are claiming, in the loudest possible terms, that even questioning the execution of Afzal is an act of sedition. Even though India has faithfully retained a repressive colonial law of sedition – against the grain of most really existing democracies – this charge has no basis. If one wants to play patriot games (I do not), it would be perfectly consistent to claim that anybody who does not question Afzal Guru’s execution is no patriot at all.

But the main charges against the protesting students stem from another source. These have to do with slogans shouted by some people present at the JNU protest. Two in particular are making the rounds: Bharat ki barbaadi tak jang zaari rahegi [Until the downfall of India, the fight goes on], and Bharat ke honge hazaar tukde [India will be split into a thousand pieces]. These slogans constitute the basis for the sedition charges which have been slapped upon JNU – for it is increasingly obvious that the entire campus is held responsible, by BJP leaders from Smriti Irani upwards, for a couple of slogans which offend the oh-so-easy-to-wound sentiments of ‘the nation’, that ever-handy abstraction from flesh-and-blood people and their lived realities. BJP spokespersons have of course claimed that they only intend to punish ‘the guilty’ – i.e. those who actually shouted these slogans. But given that the first thing the police did was to arrest Kanhaiya Kumar, the president of the students’ union, who manifestly had nothing whatsoever to do with these slogans, this is a claim which does not hold water. This is the collective punishment of an entire university, for harbouring students and faculty who dare to be vocal in their opposition to the Hindu Right. JNU is – not inaccurately – identified as a campus where organizations of the left command overwhelming popular support. This, in a nation currently ruled by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh [RSS, the Hindu Nationalist organisation which created the BJP], is a crime which cannot go unpunished.

But let’s turn to the hysteria about ‘anti-national’ elements and the slogans raised. In a recent article, Rohan D’Souza makes a vital observation: “So here is the problem: If there is an anti-national slogan or poster that is repeated or displayed by presumably a nationalist, it does not invite action under the sedition law? In effect, we are in a bizarre crisis. It doesn’t matter what is said as much as who says it.” Thus, on his Newshour debate, Arnab Goswami intoned the offending slogans again and again – and pointed the finger at students present in his studio who had nothing to do with the slogans. He yelled at them, slandered them, accused them of terrorist links, without even raising the question of whether they had personally been involved in shouting ‘anti-India’ slogans: the very slogans he was repeating in front of an audience of millions. The irony of this, unsurprisingly, passed him by.

The implicit claim in this barrage of slander, of course, was that those who participated in or organized the protest were culpable for slogans raised by a small minority of students. But let’s consider this more closely. Nobody who organizes a demonstration can possibly pre-censor every slogan shouted. Only a government without a democratic bone in its body can imagine that such control is possible. As JNU student-witnesses have testified again and again, it was the leftist organizers of the event who silenced the offending slogans. Further, if the logic of collective culpability for offensive slogans were to be followed through, virtually every RSS activist in the country would be in jail. Surely people remember slogans like ‘khoon ka badla khoon se lenge’ [“Blood for blood,” after Indira Gandhi’s assassination] or the even more sickening ‘Jis Hindu ka khoon na khaula, woh Hindu nahin, woh bhangi hai’? [“That Hindu whose blood does not boil, is not a Hindu but an Untouchable”] The latter slogan, which was used to chilling effect during the Ramjanambhoomi campaign [the destruction of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya], incidentally sums up the entire ideology of the Hindutva movement in a nutshell. These cries have been mobilized to violent and murderous effect during riots, and also mobilized on JNU and other campuses – for instance, during the dark days of the Gujarat pogrom in 2002. The Hindu nationalist slogans differ from their ‘anti-national’ counterparts in that they have actually acted as a direct incitement to violence and murder. But this is of no consequence to the government, its police, its Twitter Sena, and its Arnab Goswami. They are committed to an entirely abstract idea of the nation, as something carved in stone and detached from history. People, in their account, deserve what’s coming to them – especially if they dissent from the government’s definition of nationalism. Only the sentiments of the majority community matter. Human lives can go hang.

Integral to this definition of nationalism is the claim that free speech is all very well, but within the limits of ‘respect for the nation’. Arnab Goswami trumpeted this point repeatedly from his Times Now pulpit the other day. He went to ridiculous lengths, telling Lenin, a student activist, that he was a disgrace to his name – the real Lenin would never have tolerated seditious speech. This about a man who led the revolutionary overthrow of his own state. Arnab went on to make the claim that no nation can possibly tolerate insults to itself, regardless of free speech law. As ever, his polemic betrayed a profound ignorance. In Germany at present, for instance, there are political groups which use the slogan “Deutschland verrecke’, which roughly translates as ‘Germany, die a miserable death.’ One of the UK’s most prominent alternative comedians is currently touring the country with a brilliant show where – in front of large audiences – he spends nearly an hour alternately singing ‘God Save the Queen’ in a loud voice, and imitating loud farts. In the United States, anti-war protests routinely contained rather obtuse fringe groups which claimed the US government itself had organized the 9/11 attacks. In none of these situations have sedition charges been lodged: these forms of speech are in no sense illegal, however offensive they may be to some or many. It is not that the UK or Germany or the US are havens of free speech: they are nation-states which, like all nation-states, are proficient in various arts of repression. But they do give the lie to the assertion, made so glibly by Arnab Goswami and others, that engaging in ‘anti-national’ speech is automatically muzzled across the world. To lock up students for shouting slogans on campus betrays a sense of patriotism which is, for all its bombast, exceptionally insecure and weak. As T.K. Arun points out in an excellent article in The Economic Times, the right to free speech amounts to more than ‘the right to sing lullabies’.

There are two additional, and related, points to be made about the slogans raised at the JNU protest. First, there is a concerted attempt to create a chain of associations whereby these ‘anti-national’ cries can be linked to the culture of a university campus where the radical left is supposedly hegemonic. This is how a left-wing student union president can be picked up, interrogated, and remanded to police custody on charges of sedition, without a shred of evidence. But for anybody with even the remotest knowledge of the Indian left, such accusations are absurd. In all its incarnations, the rhetoric of the left is patriotic to a fault. The idea that nationalism itself can be a double-edged sword has little resonance in the public discourse of the left: it suffers not from a lack of nationalism but a surfeit of it. This is far from unproblematic, but that isn’t the point here. The point is that no left activist group, in any circumstances, is likely to shout ‘Pakistan zindabad’ or ‘Bharat ke tukde karenge.’ And Kanhaiya Kumar’s powerful and moving speech, prior to his arrest, demonstrates beyond a shadow of a doubt the trumped-up nature of the allegations against him. A case of wrongful arrest should be lodged immediately.

So – to come to the second point about the slogans – where do such rhetorical choices originate? Here it’s difficult to speak with certainty. Even in the video footage available of the incident, it’s not going to be possible to establish with certainty how a particular rallying cry was raised, where it came from, and how it spread. But the choice of some of these slogans contains a clue: these slogans correspond, with uncanny precision, to the Hindu Right’s fantasy about what the Left believes. Only in the fevered and manipulative imagination of a Hindutva ideologue is an Indian leftist a secret Pakistani agent. In this light, recent counter-allegations about the slogans raised at the protest make more sense. There is substantial visual evidence circulating which suggests that at least three of the people shouting ‘Pakistan zindabad’ slogans were actually ABVP activists. One of them has been identified. The other two have not, but there is footage of them shouting ‘Pakistan zindabad’  and there are photographs of them holding ABVP posters. If these charges are true – and there is considerably more evidence here than there is against the students who have actually been targeted for ‘sedition’ – then they amount to a concerted attempt to manipulate the protest to frame left-wing students. This is just what one would expect the ABVP to do. That the Right is out to systematically frame all sections of the Left is evident from recent events. Right-wing goons have been caught on camera attacking a CPI leader, as well as vandalizing the CPM office [Communist Party of India (Marxist)] and daubing the words ‘Pakistan zindabad’ on the building. Coincidence? Unlikely.

Such organized manipulation serves a distinct purpose in the current political climate. Modi had come to power promising his voters everything under the sun; he has been unable to deliver anything at all. His party has made itself unpopular enough, in a short span of time, to collapse spectacularly in successive electoral contests. And in many ways education has – not unexpectedly – been the flashpoint of conflict. The government has stuffed educational and research institutions with under-qualified RSS-trained mediocrities whose appointments have not, in a single case, gone uncontested. The education minister herself combines an utter indifference to educational standards with, allegedly, fake educational credentials. The Rohith Vemula incident was a tipping point: the central government drove a Dalit student to suicide through systematic and sadistic bullying, as punishment for his dissent. Student anger at the government, across campuses (Madras IIT, FTII Pune, DU, AUD, JNU, HCU, and others), is higher than it has been in generations. And the Hindu Right is distinctly uncomfortable with college and university students: they represent the ‘new India’ whom they want to reach out to, but Hindutva’s only means of pedagogy, nurtured to such brilliant effect in RSS shakhas, is didactic and forbids the slightest hint of questioning or critique. Education and academic life for the Hindu Right mean the absorption of given formulae, not an open-ended process of enquiry. But this in turn means, inevitably, that the government’s vaulting aspirations to global prestige are going to be frustrated, since no serious academic in West or East, North or South, can possibly treat the claims made by the Right – Ganesh as a product of plastic surgery, homosexuality as a disease, the consumption of chowmein as a proximate cause of rape – with anything but derision or horror.

In such a situation, what is a right-wing, authoritarian ruling party with dwindling credibility to do? The events in JNU give us the answer: they are going to escalate the war of rumour-mongering, intimidation and direct deceit, at a pace which leaves us demoralized. The attribution of ‘terror links’ to the protesting students is a perfect instance of such fabrication. In the most recent incident of such fabrication, matters have taken a comical turn. A clearly false Twitter handle, attributed to the terrorist Hafiz Mohammed Saeed, congratulated the JNU students for their struggle. Every concocted tweet, every rumour is fodder to this malign but (thankfully) incompetent conspiracy against JNU. The Home Minister, Rajnath Singh, capitalized instantly, saying this was incontrovertible evidence of terrorist links. A subsequent tweet, by somebody else claiming to be Hafiz Saeed mocked the Indian government for descending to a ‘new low’ to frame people. Well…if the cap fits, wear it!

In the normal run of circumstances, it would take no more than a minute’s thought to prick this entire bubble of rumour about ‘terrorist links’. If Rajnath Singh and the police are to be taken seriously, a bunch of terrorists decided to go to an open meeting, in a campus swarming with ABVP police informers, and shout anti-India slogans. They then proceeded to visit the television studio of a well-known right-wing hack, known for his extreme jingoism, and ‘expose’ themselves. Because of course that’s what terrorists do: they are cunning enough to carry out secret attacks which the state can never anticipate and prevent, but somehow also stupid enough to expose themselves publicly in front of a hundred hostile cameras – and Arnab Goswami. These are the lies our rulers tell us. And these are the building-blocks of Hindutva’s absurd fantasies about ‘plots against the nation’.

The purpose, quite clearly, is to create a state of Emergency or something akin to it, similar to 1975-77 but more dangerous because amplified by the rumour-mongering dishonesty of an RSS-dominated social media. Nothing else can explain the ludicrous fabrication of ‘incriminating’ tweets, followed by an instant endorsement from the Home Minister, followed by the rapid uptake of these rumours by news outlets and social media, followed by the mysterious disappearance of the tweets in question. None of the claims made about sedition can possibly hold up in a halfway serious court of law. But the Hindu Right does not really seek legal convictions for sedition. The creation of an atmosphere of terror, suspicion, and wild rumour is the end-in-itself of such propaganda – and so far it has proved immensely successful. Speed is essential to this form of mythmaking. The tweets mentioned by the Home Minister as incontrovertible evidence of course disappeared rapidly. But they stayed online long enough to make many people very angry, and to deepen the image of JNU as an ‘anti-national’ bastion. Let’s not forget that audiocassettes were central to the dissemination of Vishva Hindu Parishad [VHP, World Hindu Council, the RSS’s religious arm] propaganda from the late 1980s onward, and were instrumental in fomenting communal riots. The Right have always had an edge in the deployment and manipulation of available forms of mass media.

Inevitably, mobs fed on lies and rumour, have appeared outside campus gates as a consequence. Unable to muster support within their campus, ABVP activists have apparently mobilized the patriotic citizens of Munirka to teach JNU students a lesson, and large crowds have been seen outside the JNU gates baying for blood. Once again, this is how the Hindu Right works.

The alliance between an authoritarian government, media sensationalism, and middle class hyper-patriotism reaches its apogee in the ubiquitous figure of Arnab. The show trial he carried out on his ‘Newshour debate’ was the tipping point of this controversy. The purpose of it was plainly to identify and isolate a set of left-wing student campaigners, throw unsubstantiated accusations at them, and wait for these accusations to become the basis of a state-led witch-hunt. That witch-hunt has now begun. It would be absurd if it weren’t so terrifying – the open shouting of slogans in a public, democratic space (however objectionable to some) becomes the basis for a terror investigation, founded on nothing but rumour and thin air. But because the all-encompassing charge of ‘anti-nationalism’ has been levelled, because completely baseless ‘terrorist links’ have been insinuated by a news anchor foaming with rage, the impossible becomes the inevitable. Anyone and everyone is fair game, slander substitutes for investigation, and legal proprieties are suspended, once again, to appease ‘the collective conscience of the nation’.

In such situations, the left needs to be on its guard. The ostensible targets of the state/media frenzy are students with terrorist links. But these students do not exist. They therefore have to be invented. For this to take place, a mechanism must be created which identifies dissent as such with ‘anti-nationalism’, which in turn comes to be identified as ‘sedition’. The identification of this supposed sedition with ‘terrorism’ completes the semantic chain. What is truly remarkable is that not one shred of evidence supports a single link in this chain – and yet this baselessness makes it all the more powerful. If your accusations cannot be verified, neither can they be falsified. And the attribution of malign intent can be the basis for brutal police crackdowns, and something which I hesitate to call McCarthyism, for it makes McCarthyism look like a child’s game. On Sunday, some theatre performers were picked up by the police for questioning because they ‘looked like JNU students’. It’s the same logic which sets lynch mobs loose on Africans living in India, which leads the police to investigate the victim rather than the crime whenever a Muslim is lynched by the Sangh Parivar [the RSS family of organisations], and which has now generated the blatant framing of JNU for an imaginary crime.

It’s harsh to say this, but it was a serious mistake for leftist students to have turned up to Arnab Goswami’s show in the first place. The consequences have been dire, but what else could possibly have happened? We have all seen Arnab invite left-wing people to his show in the past – the purpose is always and only slander. He never lets anyone fractionally to his left complete a single statement – if they speak, their voices are drowned out by his bellowing, and their words are twisted out of context to make them look guilty. The Moscow show trials of the 1930s, premised on the principle that the accused were guilty unless proven otherwise, are his model of discourse, whether he knows it or not. Given that the present controversy involved the airing of controversial ‘anti-national’ slogans, it was inevitable that the Newshour debate would be structured as an exercise in framing left-wing JNU students as ‘anti-India’ elements and subjecting them to a terrifying witch-hunt. But this will happen again, and steps need to be taken to guard against it. People to Arnab’s left should refuse to show up to his show trials, and refuse to participate in the shameful charade he runs. If they show up, they should show up wearing gags.

There is another trap which the left can very easily fall into – and sadly some recent pronouncements bear this out. This is the trap of trying to separate good, ‘nationalist’ left-wing students from ‘anti-national’ elements. But to do this involves accepting the discourse of ‘anti-nationalism’ itself, when the term itself exists solely in order to weed out and violently repress forms of dissent the government of the day finds unacceptable. It has no other meaning, it has no other function. To accept the existence of the category of ‘anti-nationals’ is to accept a right-wing fabrication. The fact that the slogans shouted were provocative, and that the person most severely targeted so far, Kanhaiya Kumar, is clearly a left-wing patriot with no sympathy for these slogans, makes an attempt to separate the good dissenter from the bad dissenter seem all the more attractive. But this is a trap. If it succeeds, next time the boundaries of acceptable discourse will have shifted further to the right, and step by step every form of dissident speech will be snuffed out. As against this, it’s necessary to persistently call the bluff of the very discourse of ‘anti-nationalism’; to point out that the expression of protest and anger, if not accompanied by an incitement to violence, cannot possibly be considered ‘seditious’; and to stress the colonial origins of the sedition law itself, and the eternal shame that an independent democratic country should choose to retain it.

There is, however, some ground for optimism. The Opposition parties do, finally, seem to have come together – it is too early to say for how long. Kejriwal’s attempt to initiate a magisterial enquiry not led by the central government was a step in the right direction. There is ample proof that the central government is a biased participant in this matter, and as such should not be in charge of an investigation where it is the prime accuser. Rahul Gandhi and the remnants of the Congress finally got their act together: it was a fine gesture of solidarity to turn up on JNU campus and address the protest meeting on 13 February. Laloo Prasad Yadav’s suggestion that this recent charade is an attempt to shift attention away from the scandal of Rohith Vemula’s suicide is absolutely on the mark, and this is why the connection between the two cases of BJP-led persecution should be emphasized. There will be limits, some of which will amount to grievous compromises, to what official opposition parties will allow themselves to say in defence of the students. This sadly seems inevitable. But if some sort of anti-BJP bloc can be constructed out of this event, all will not have been lost. This is a dark and terrifying moment, but it may yet become a political opportunity, as the desperation and sheer deceit purveyed by the Hindu Right becomes more palpable and visible.

Most of all, however, much of the JNU campus has come together in a stirring and moving demonstration of collective solidarity against the victimization they’ve suffered. It must be terrifying to be on campus at the moment: lynch mobs baying for blood outside, and the scarcely less terrifying presence of the police force within; the unconstitutional rounding-up of dissident students; the administration’s eager capitulation to the Hindu Right. But in the midst of all this, students and teachers have combined forces, held massive demonstrations, issued statements, written courageous articles in the press, and formed an enormous human chain inside campus. And this spirit must intensify in the weeks and months to come. Nobody on campus should ever forget the face which the ABVP has displayed over the last week, which of course is its true face. The students whose hostels have been raided, whose friends have been picked up, who have been slandered in the media, will not forget that it was the ABVP and BJP which set the police on them. If the Hindu Right is finished on JNU campus (and other campuses) as a result of recent events, this will not be compensation enough for the lies, the violence and the terror inflicted on students. But it will be something.

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