The reprehensible JNU controversy
Sultan M Hali


The students of New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) are staging a massive protest, which appears to be taking on a snowball effect. The origin of the controversy is based in the act that some students pasted posters across the JNU campus inviting people to a protest against the ‘judicial killing of Afzal Guru’, triggering a row. It may be recalled that Afzal Guru was hanged for being declared responsible for the attack on the New Delhi Parliament building on December 13, 2001. The trial of Afzal Guru failed to find him culpable for the heinous crime in light of the flimsy evidence submitted by the prosecutors but the Indian judiciary still sentenced him to death, which was carried out furtively.

JNU, whose students are renowned for free debate, decided to protest the hanging on the third anniversary of the odious act on February 9. Members of the Hindu extremist RSS’s Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) objected to the event and wrote to the Vice Chancellor that such kind of protests should not be held on the campus, prompting the university administration to order cancellation of the march. Vice Chancellor of JNU M Jagadesh Kumar said, “While the JNU community upholds the right to free debate on campus, the University strongly condemns the use of the University as a platform for activities that violate the Constitution and the laws of the land. However, there could be aberrations where fringe sections misuse the freedom provided.” The JNU administration instituted a “disciplinary” inquiry as to how the event took place despite withdrawal of permission and said it will wait for the probe report before taking any further action. Contrarily, Delhi Police registered a case of sedition against “unknown persons” in connection with the event, following complaints by BJP MP Maheish Girri and the ABVP. On February 12, JNU Students Union President Kanhaiya Kumar was arrested in a sedition case over the Afzal Guru event and, ironically, incarcerated in the same jail cell as Afzal Guru in Tihar Jail. Kumar’s arrest sparked a massive outrage among students and criticism from non-BJP parties which dubbed it as an “emergency-like” situation. Asserting that JNU cannot be allowed to be a “hub of anti-national activities”, Minister of State for Home Kiren Rijiju said freedom of expression cannot be “absolute and unqualified and reasonable restriction” has to be there. Meanwhile, a video clip was presented as evidence against the JNU students, alleged to be demanding freedom for Indian Occupied Kashmir (IOK) and raising pro Pakistan slogans. It has now surfaced that the video clip was doctored. Vishwa Deepak, a journalist working with Zee News has resigned, suggesting that the channel deliberately misinterpreted a video clip to brand some students including Kanhaiya Kumar as anti-nationals and trigger the controversy at the JNU. Delhi Police’s FIR in the case is based solely on the video clip aired by Zee News. With this fresh twist in the case, on February 20, the Delhi government sent at least five video clips of the JNU event for forensic tests after allegations that they were doctored. In his letter, Deepak alleged that the channel went out of the way to portray Kanhaiya Kumar and others as anti-nationals. “The video didn’t have any ‘Pakistan Zindabad’ slogans at all -– yet we played it repeatedly to spread madness and mayhem. How did we believe that some voices coming out of the dark belonged to Kanhaiya and his companions? Due to our biases, we heard ‘long live Indian courts’ as ‘long live Pakistan’ and working on the government line, brought the careers, their hopes and aspirations and families of some people to the brink of destruction,” Deepak wrote in his letter which he has also posted on his Facebook page. Other renowned personalities have joined the fray. Barkha Dutt, the distinguished Indian journalist, has penned an open letter to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, beseeching him to put an end to the manipulation and government’s high handedness of government functionaries in the crackdown on JNU to respect humanity. Jawaid Naqvi, an alumnus of JNU, expresses similar sentiments in his op-ed ‘To foil the nationalist narrative’. Highlighting the open thinking of JNU students, he recalls that “The day (Zulfikar Ali) Bhutto was laid low, many JNU students didn’t eat. There was more palpable sorrow than at the passing away of Mao Zedong a year or two earlier, although on that occasion too some students wore the black armband. No one was jailed or attacked for mourning a Pakistani leader or celebrating a Chinese one.” A batch of ex-servicemen, alumni of the university, threatened to return their degrees as they found it “difficult” to be associated with an institution that has become a “hub of anti-national activities”. It may be remembered that after protests escalated in Hyderabad University last month following the suicide of Rohith Vemula, students across JNU put up posters of the Dalit student outside their hostel rooms. It may be recalled that Rohith Vemula, a PhD student had hanged himself on January 17, 2016, and his suicide sparked protests and outrage from across India and gained widespread media attention as an alleged case of discrimination against Dalits and low status castes in India. The prevailing scenario across India has turned grim because of the extremism being propagated. Modi’s government was pursuing a Hindu-nationalist agenda. Last year, many prominent Indian writers and intellectuals returned national awards to protest government’s attempts to promote Hindutva, following the killing of a Muslim man by a mob who suspected he had slaughtered a cow. India is rapidly losing its secular credentials and is sinking in the abyss of narrow nationalism, radicalism and intolerance. Modi will have to personally step in and stem the rot which is setting in and rein in the extremist cadres of Hindus from openly questioning the nationalism of their opponents. The followers of Mahatma Gandhi and Babasaheb Ambedkar, the proponents of freedom of speech and tolerance, should be embracing the virtues preached and practised by their founding fathers rather than flouting them on the altar of bigotry.