The charge-sheeting of JNU students is a move to criminalise contrarian opinion
The filing of sedition and conspiracy charges against three former Jawaharlal Nehru University students and seven others nearly three years after a political event on its campus, is a needlessly heavy-handed response to campus sloganeering. That it took so long to ready a charge sheet, which has been filed a few months ahead of the general election, casts a shadow of political motive. It would have been far wiser to dismiss this as an instance of radicalised student politics than proceed against them with a stringent colonial-era law, which should not have been allowed to even remain in the statute book. There is no convincing case that the students, and the others present, disrupted public order or incited violence. Even if all the charges about the shouting of “anti-national” slogans and supporting those who questioned the country’s sovereignty were true, these acts do not merit the use of the sedition law.
The Delhi Police had arrested JNU student union leader Kanhaiya Kumar in February 2016, but failed to protect him from assaultwhile being produced in court; it did nothing to bring to book his assailants. Now, in filing formal charges of sedition, it continues to ignore the law laid down by the Supreme Court on what constitutes ‘sedition’. The essential ingredients of Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code, that there should be a call for violence or a pernicious tendency to foment public disorder, are conspicuously absent in the case.
Campuses on which radical politics thrives are anathema to the ruling dispensation. However, that cannot be a justification for the sort of fear-mongering about the direction of campus politics that the ruling party and its supporters have been indulging in since the developments of 2016. Campuses ought to nurture political opinions of different shades, but there has been a disquieting tendency to brand as “anti-national” those who do not endorse all actions of the state. That the ABVP, the student wing of the RSS, has not done well in several student union elections may also be a factor in driving antipathy towards some institutions. In every case of sedition, which is filed invariably in connection with a dissenting speech or piece of writing, there is a political element. In this case, the filing of the charge sheet appears to subserve the political and electoral purpose of advancing a populist nationalist agenda. It is also liable to be seen as an attempt to criminalise contrarian views among student activists and also a clampdown on dissent. It will be in the fitness of things if the trial court examines the Delhi Police report in the light of the Supreme Court’s restricted interpretation of sedition before it takes cognisance of it.