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Students v/s System: The JNU story4 min read

March 12, 2016 3 min read

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Students v/s System: The JNU story4 min read

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Almost a month after Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) students organised a protest to commemorate the third anniversary of Afzal Guru’s hanging, the debate over the topic is still burning, fueled by copious amounts of vitriol added by the major stakeholders – the media and the politicians running the country.

The students at JNU organised a poetry reading of “A country without a post office” – a poem by Agha Shahid Ali, written in 1997. The title of the poem is derived from an incident that occurred in 1990, when Kashmir rebelled against the Indian rule, resulting in hundreds of gruesome and violent deaths, fires, and mass rapes. For seven months, post offices remained closed and there was no mail delivered in Kashmir, due to the political turmoil that gripped the land. Today, the turmoil is spreading to the entire country.

A year ago, the same protest in the JNU campus passed off peacefully . In the intervening year, a series of incidents have taken India to the lurch -rationalists Govind Pansare, Narendra Dabholkar and MM Kalburgi were murdered, a Muslim man was lynched, awards were returned, films were censored and film actors were vilified – all for expressing opinions.

Students of JNU were also merely expressing their opinion on that fateful February 9 afternoon. A group of students believed that Afzal Guru was framed, played no role in the 2001 parliament attacks and that his capital punishment was wrong.  In such a case, shouldn’t the state engage them in a discussion rather than charge them for conspiracy? It was a public meeting after all, where everyone was invited. BJP’s student wing – Akhila Bhartiya Vishwa Parishad (ABVP) pressed the administration into cancelling the event but the organisers however went ahead even without microphones. Shouldn’t ABVP and others who were against the protest have countered slogans with slogans and not sedition charges? Was there a need for the witch hunt that eventually got JNU Student Union leader Kanhaiya Kumar arrested?

Several people have questioned the death penalty of Afzal Guru. Shashi Tharoor called it “wrong”. Former Delhi High Court chief justice, Justice AP Shah, said that the hanging of Afzal Guru and Yakub Memon were “politically motivated”.  Are they anti-nationals too? The Supreme Court judgement* itself acknowledged that the evidence in the Afzal Guru case was circumstantial:-

“As is the case with most conspiracies, there is and could be no evidence amounting to criminal conspiracy.”

But then, shockingly, it went on to say:

“The incident, which resulted in heavy casualties, had shaken the entire nation, and the collective conscience of society will only be satisfied if capital punishment is awarded to the offender.”

As JNU student Harshit Agarwal (a witness to the incident) pointed out, the protestors did not carry arms, they carried ideas. They did not raise slogans against India but raised them against the idea of India. The chasm of difference between the two is vast and expansive. The chasm widens when you consider that it was almost solely students from Kashmir chanting the slogans and none of them were JNU students (based on undoctored video evidence so far).

The idea of India for someone from Kashmir, living a majority of his life under military rule, is very different from the idea of India for the rest of the country. Their ire is channelled towards the torture and suffering inflicted on them by the military establishment or the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) active in Jammu and Kashmir.

While the media played judge, jury and executioner over the issue, it failed to highlight the important questions. The question is not whether JNU students are anti-national.  The question instead is whether Afzal Guru was hanged after a fair trial. The question is if the police had any right to arrest Kanhaiya Kumar without substantial proof and why the same police let the lawyers who attacked Kanhaiya Kumar walk away. These questions are lost in the clutter of the fiery debate thrown up by the incident.

The worst part about silence is that it breeds silence, and before you know it, silence becomes the norm.  The mob rules today, with an extent of control it never had before, reinforced by silence – its greatest weapon. Once you stop yourself from voicing your thoughts, you forget how to think them – how to think freely at all – and ideas perish at conception.  The questions over JNU have been voiced out by Kanhaiya. Will the BJP break their silence and answer them or will the witch-hunt continue?

Prajwal Bhat is a reporter at The Manipal Journal and a student of School of Communication.

The views expressed are personal.