JNU Protest: The right to dissent

Dr. Ghulam Nabi Fai

IN many respects the brouhaha over the Jawahar Lal Nehru University (JNU) protest and the arrest of the student union president Kanhaiya Kumar can be counted as a good thing, in that it has brought the issue of Kashmir again into the national limelight, encouraging discussion and dialogue about self-determination.
Kashmir is one of the most beautiful countries in the world, but yet it is being treated like dirt under the rug. Responsibility for it must ultimately be faced, because, sooner or later, it will be exposed. The authorities will hope that the JNU protest and Afzal Guru can be swept under the rug of the Indian conscience too. But repression invariably brings about the very opposite.
Yet it is stunning. The absurd anachronistic qualities of it are rather well characterized by The Hindu which posted on February 18, 2016 a political cartoon of Don Quixote charging toward a windmill, crying “Sedition.” And Double double, toil and trouble: HRD Minister Smriti Irani, thinking herself back on a Bollywood film set, came dashing onto the stage in defense of “Mother India,” while forgetting her children, who were left hanging around her boiling cauldron. Has anyone called the Child Protection Agency? And don’t forget Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh who stood at the gate, sword to the ready, waiting to seize and shackle anyone in irons who dared say anything negative about her. Don Quixote would’ve been proud.
However silly, none of this could ever masquerade as patriotism and nationalism, both of which are rooted in a love for the principles on which a country has been established, not some figment of a fairy tale imagination. One cannot kill democracy in order to save it. There is no end which justifies abandoning the means.
Democracy is never a static thing. Its survival depends upon change and the ability to constantly evolve as people within a society grow.
A narrow mean spirit is not a worthy substitute for the very constitutional foundations of a modern democracy which were designed to be inclusive and to embrace the broadest possible representation of viewpoints. Within the very heart of democracy is the constant flow of ideas, of broad public opinion, which gives a country the strength to grow and mature through a fair evaluation and consideration of those ideas which represent wisdom by their inclusiveness rather than by exclusion.
A country that celebrates itself as a secular democratic state must pay its dues to the most fundamental democratic freedom of all, the right of dissent.
As Voltaire so appropriately said, “I may not agree with what you say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.” The nation should rather express its gratitude to those countless students at Jawahar Lal Nehru University, New Delhi, who risked their lives to uphold the truth and the freedom of expression. Afzal Guru, who was executed in Tihar Jail in 2013, was hanged, allegedly, to satisfy the “collective conscience” of India. Paradoxically, it was that very act which is seeping through the rug now.
Many, however, believed, as did the students at JNU, that this was a travesty of justice. It was more like a lynch mob stirred up by a phantom enemy, conjured out of a collective fantasy; or like a young boy, angry at his mom for taking his bicycle away, going out and beating a dog. Justice didn’t matter. It was about PTSD and a need to lash out; some Freudian anguish in a crazed bull which saw red and charged a red fire hydrant in hopes of ameliorating its suffering. Meanwhile the collective had been knocked unconscious.
Yet the overwhelming majority of the Kashmiri population, including the chief minister in waiting, Ms. Mehbooba Mufti, her late father, Mufti Sayeed, the leader of the opposition, Mr. Omar Abdullah (Former Chief Minister of Jammu & Kashmir) and his father, Dr. Farooq Abdullah (former Federal Minister of India) have all said that Afzal guru’s hanging was a miscarriage of justice.
Most of the slogans shouted by the students at JNU have legal, constitutional and international legitimacy. When students shout “Self-determination for Kashmir” or “Freedom for Kashmir”, these are neither secessionist nor separatist slogans. It is a reminder to those at the helm of affairs in New Delhi that these were the very words pronounced by Pandit Nehru, then the prime minister of India and Mahatma Gandhi, the founder of India.
Does the BJP-led government also want to lodge sedition charges posthumously against Pandit Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi who are on record to have said that the people of Kashmir have the right to decide the fate of their nation?
Pandit Nehru said, on 21st November 1947, “Kashmir should decide the question of accession by plebiscite or referendum under international auspices, such as those of the United Nations.”
Mahatma Gandhi has also been known to have declared that Kashmir’s real rulers were its people and not its Maharajas. “If the people of Kashmir are in favor of opting for Pakistan, no power on earth can stop them from doing so. But they should be left free to decide for themselves.”
And one can’t just sweep that under the rug because that itself is carried in the soul of the collective conscience. Therefore, those who raise the slogans about the freedom of Kashmir should not be called anti national. They are simply speaking the truth. It takes courage to do that in an atmosphere that has become reminiscent of conditions that characterized Germany leading up to World War II.
This affair is a permanent stain on the very fabric of Indian culture. Discussing the right of self-determination for the people of Kashmir at university campuses should be encouraged by the authorities concerned. University campuses very often provide true moral leadership for a nation, because youthful rebellion and resistance to corruption in high office grow out of the intellectual vitality of an exchange of ideas that are nurtured, and where public policy is discussed. What is true or good tends to percolate to the top, because it is almost always concerned with justice. Young people live under the domination and control of their parents, and they become very observant of moral inconsistencies in which adults do not do as they say their children should do.
These young people are not picking up arms or throwing stones. There is no rebellion here. They are simply voicing opinions. Universities have historically been places to have free and balanced discussion on the issues of national concern, such as Kashmir. It is here at campuses that ideas germinate and ultimately change the world.
Terrorizing the student population is possibly the worst thing a government could do. Blowback is inevitable. How can individuals be patriotic and ignore the rule of law? How can these people call themselves patriots while ignoring basic human rights and the civil liberties enshrined by law and the Constitution, the very laws which form the foundation of civility and respect and the ability to live together as a community, which they now claim to defend? What are they championing but some autocratic regime that prohibits free speech and the right to protest actions by their government that seem to infringe upon basic rights? This is not the “Mother India” of any Indian worthy of the name. Shall we start goose-stepping now or wait for a command?
All 193 members of the United Nations have signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which states very clearly, “it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law.” Dissent must be permitted, because it is a firewall to rebellion. For peace to prevail, we must all have recourse to our grievances, and that is often expressed through dissent.

[Dr. Fai can be reached at: 1-202-607-6435 or gnfai2003@yahoo.com]

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