An empire on the edge?

An empire on the edge?

As the rocking events of the JNU story move out of the news cycle, a stream of sub textual themes is slowly making itself felt. The way the Indian government dealt with slogan-raising students makes a bitter commentary on the Indian state. The slogans may have been unacceptable to most Indians, but they were just that — slogans. And we are not even sure whether such ‘seditious’ slogans were actually raised. Video footage purportedly documenting these ‘anti-national’ slogans has already been called into question with allegations of having been doctored.

Major Indian media outlets aired this unverified footage and delivered from their pulpits summary judgements about the JNU students’ ‘seditious’ slogan-raising. That ratcheted up the public frenzy making the students look like terrorists and the institution itself as a nursery of terrorist sympathisers in the eyes of most Indians. Indian Home Minister Rajnath Singh’s statement that the protest at JNU had the support of Lashkar-e-Toiba demonised the students further getting the saffron brigade to bay for the students’ blood. The results were there in no time. Even Indian lawyers found it fitting to pack their fists at the JNU students’ union president inside the Delhi court premises. Outside the court, likes of Arnab Goswami tried to wake up the “patriotic and nationalistic pride” of Indians to take on a few slogan-shouting students or else India, the seventh largest country of the world, might instantly fall apart.

Slogans cannot bring down a country that possesses over 100 nuclear warheads and has a 1.5 million strong army. Slogans cannot unleash a revolution that can overthrow the biggest democratic setup the world has ever seen. If slogans could do that, Kashmir would have seen a million revolutions where ‘seditious’ azadi slogans are raised even if a cockerel goes missing.

An important dimension of the JNU story was the function organised at the University in the remembrance of Afzal Guru convicted by the Indian Supreme Court on terrorism charges and later hanged. There has been considerable debate about the way the Indian courts arrived at handing over a death sentence to Afzal. There has been a serious questioning of whether Afzal actually got a fair trial or was sent to gallows for reasons other than criminal. Now even the former Indian Home Minister P Chidambaram has joined this debate. In a belated surge of ‘honesty’ he has lately been wondering about the extent of Afzal’s involvement in the Parliament attack case and if the Indian Supreme Court’s decision to hang him was correct.

Slogans cannot bring down a country that has over 100 nuclear warheads and a 1.5 million strong army. Slogans cannot unleash a revolution that can overthrow the biggest democratic setup the world has ever seen

Analysts have been quoting and examining the intent and import of these words the Indian Supreme Court said in its judgment ordering the hanging of Afzal: the collective conscience of the society will be satisfied if capital punishment is awarded to the offender. Many legal and political experts have questioned the use of the words, “to satisfy the collective conscience of the society” and wondered if it means baying for blood. It becomes a grave issue when this language comes from the highest court of a country. Judgements can be right or wrong, motivated or justified, but they can certainly be delivered in a language of urbanity and poise rather than in verbiage of revengefulness. And that, which isn’t populist in its selection of words. Or that, which doesn’t promote an eye-for-eye culture of jurisprudence, and at that level. This judgment suddenly changed the concept of courts and jurisprudence as this particular phraseology put in place a new yardstick of seeking justice.

Sketch Afzal Guru
Guru execution: Fair trial or judicial murder? Sketch: Ovais Gora

We are witnessing its effects today in India’s public discourses and media narratives whenever sensitive issues like Kashmir or the JNU ‘sedition’ case come up. An atmosphere is created where courts are pressured not to deliver justice but settle scores in favour of a vengeful raucous public.

These things have been said and debated though this debate has not moved into the Indian public conscience and public discourse or the clamorous Indian media often referred to as mainstream. Had it, the Indian public would have seen the JNU happenings in a different perspective rather than as an assault on India’s integrity or its sense of “patriotism” and “nationalism”,  whatever way they may want to define these words.

The use of the words “to satisfy the collective conscience of the society” has now actually had the opposite effect. It has stimulated the collective conscience of some conscientious people, however marginalised or powerless they may be. Or whatever little their number may be.


Case history leading to Afzal’s hanging and the circumstances in which he was hanged on have also been previously debated. There are doubts about the fairness of this trial. The timing of the hanging, Afzal’s final right to appeal the death sentence too have come under the scrutiny of a section of analysts. A meta analysis of all these analyses doesn’t convince one to accept Afzal’s execution at its face value. There are holes and loopholes. Legal expert ND Pancholi had said the same thing in an interview some time ago. “The amicus curie did not plead Afzal’s case sufficiently. He didn’t cross examine the witnesses. Afzal wanted to change him, but that was not excepted,” Pancholi had said. Now if anyone calls such an execution controversial, organises a remembrance gathering for the victim of this execution and contends what some have described as “judicial murder”, is he or she trying to open up a meaningful debate over a range of issues, or trying to dismember a republic of 1.3 billion? And why should the republic feel itself on the edge over such an innocuous activity? And how many valid justifications can be offered when the republic launches itself into a battle cry and revengefully sways the sledge hammer?

The other dimension of JNU events over the Afzal-remembrance function is the awarding of death sentence itself. What is in question is the State’s right to take life when it cannot give one even if the law says that it is to be awarded in the “rarest of the rare” cases. It is, of course, a much larger debate relating to India’s criminal justice system. But the function to remember Afzal at JNU or anywhere else is part of the opening up of a discussion about capital punishment. More so, in a situation where there are questions over the fairness of the trial or the atmosphere surrounding a case that may influence the court’s judgement as is evident in the use of the words “to satisfy the collective conscience of the society” in Afzal’s case. Again, if such trials, decisions and punishments are being questioned in university campuses, should such examination be construed as seditious, treasonous, unpatriotic and what you have?

A crucial issue directly linked with the JNU story is the extent to which university campuses can, or cannot, go as spaces of critical inquiry and for airing views that may collide with the State’s narrative. A word often used in this context is dissent and the individual’s right to it. But perhaps that is a wrong word because it takes away the focus from the central issue or issues. It is inherently limiting because of its negative connotation. It makes the issues, at stake, look and sound very superficial and simplistic. This word also becomes a powerful reductionist tool to see issues in binaries of black and white. It creates an aura of false magnanimity around the State and its entities for permitting expression of alternative opinions. The State’s power structure makes you believe that such permission is an act of benevolence or favour for which your unqualified gratitude becomes necessary. The right to express alternative opinions is the natural entitlement of any individual as along as it respects human decency. The word ‘dissent’ and its overuse make it look as if the other person has some problem with the system which we are made to believe is compassionate, pluralistic and capable of solving issues to the satisfaction of all aggrieved people. The reality is far from it. The central issues are not so much about expressing a different point of view, or its inability, as it is often made out to be.

While this violence goes unpardoned and even eulogised under the fig leafs of “religious sentiment” and “nationalistic feelings”, Kanhaiya’s speech, the alleged sloganeering at JNU and the Afzal-remembrance function are promptly treated as treasonous inviting arrests

The central issues are about stolen freedoms, occupations, oppression, and political-social-economic injustices. It is about ideological-religious steamrolling. It is about well thought processes of gradual disenfranchisement. It is about majoritarianism and its debasing influences on those in minority and hence powerless. It is about the State or rulers arrogating themselves powers and privileges by stealth and sly. It is about co-opting sections of the oppressed people to advance the State’s objectives.

We know all this so well in Kashmir. We also know so well how spaces in Kashmir at university campuses have been squeezed and occupied so that no questioning becomes possible. We also know that even research in our universities is controlled in such a way that it produces scholars and scholarship compliant with the State’s discourse on Kashmir. We also know servility is valued over the spirit of independent scholarship. We also know how a local man comes to be rewarded with the VCship for co-option over his ‘services’ to the State in creating and furthering false narratives about Kashmir and its resistance movement at international bodies. We also know how the same man ordered bulldozing, and that literally, of the students’ union office at the Kashmir University campus to silence any possible student activism or any questioning of the State’s means and methods of controlling the people. We also know how another man is made the VC despite his previous connections with a student Islamic organisation and his former pro-azaadi views which the State would have found as enough reason to reject his candidature. But it was again the stratagem of co-option at work. The instructional manual handed over to such men is simple: fashion all activities, academic or non-academic, in line with the State’s narrative. The ecology of ideas and inquiry is thus effectively controlled to produce conformists and collaborators who are so much needed to self-perpetuate the occupation.

But let’s not forget another VC of Kashmir University, a non-local Muslim and a historian of repute. He had nothing to do with the uprising in Kashmir or the politics here, but was done to death by those who claimed to espouse the cause of Kashmir’s freedom. It was a cold-blooded murder. Let’s not rush to invent justifications for this murder in our bid to justify our own struggle or things it necessitates. University campuses should challenge State policies and narratives; but they should not be selective about debates on wrongdoings and injustices by those who claim to fight these injustices. That will defeat the very purpose of creating and nurturing intellectual integrity at these campuses.

A content analysis of JNU president Kanhaiya Kumar’s speech at the JNU campus points to all these issues of overstepping by State or non-state entities, appropriation of power by the rulers, the injustices done in the process, denial of rights and the ‘othering’ methods. It alludes to the systemic, systematic and institutionalized disenfranchisement. It isn’t an angry outburst from an angry young man. It is well-thought in its content and articulation. There is nothing seditious in it. And let’s not forget it comes from a young man pursuing his doctoral degree and not some “misguided, drug-abusing,” stone-throwing youth from the angry streets of Kashmir.

Here is an excerpt from Kanhaiya’s speech: “Some people are saying JNU runs on taxpayers’ money. Yes, it does. But I want to raise the question: what are universities for? Universities are there for critical analysis of the society’s collective conscience. Critical analysis should be promoted. If universities fail in their duty, there would be no nation. If people are not part of a nation, it will turn into a grazing ground for the rich, for exploitation and looting,” and then Kanhaiya raises serious issues and questions about those who have usurped power and are sitting in judgement of people’s actions and reactions to acts of injustices. “Call us and hold a debate. We want to debate the concept of violence. We want to raise questions about the frenzied slogans, their slogan that they will do tilak with blood and aarti with bullets. Whose blood do they want to spill?

“They aligned with the British and fired bullets on the freedom fighters of this country. They fired bullets when poor people demanded bread; they fired bullets when people dying of hunger talked about their rights; they have fired bullets on Muslims; they have fired bullets on women when they demand equal rights and they are now distributing certificates of patriotism.” Kanhaiya must have seen all this up and close to feel the pain and make a call for a debate. He is a Dalit and repeatedly calls for a fair treatment to Dalits and an end to India’s deeply-ingrained caste system. He sees  a “nexus between casteism and capitalism” as  one of India’s major ills.

Kanhaiya goes on to quiz this culture of unabashed resort to violence by Hindu right-wingers against those they have issues with. After Narendra Modi’s elevation as prime minister, this has become a new motif in India’s public life and a potent tool to bully others into submission. Akhlaq Ahmad’s public lynching at Dadri or the burning to death of Fayaz Ahmad at Udhampur  are recent cases where Hindu extremists have so conveniently delivered summary deaths. The repeated attacks on Kashmiri assembly member Engineer Rashid, even inside the state assembly premises, where members are supposed to make laws not break them, illustrate the ascendancy of this culture of violence largely driven by rabid communal feelings. Kanhaiya dares the Hindu extremist on their frequent use of violence against supposed or real opponents.

JNUSU president Kanhaiya Kumar at a court in Delhi where he was assaulted by lawyers and right wing extremists
JNUSU president Kanhaiya Kumar at a court in Delhi where he was assaulted by lawyers and right wing extremists

Kanhaiya himself later became a victim of these lynch-mobs. And this lynch-mob mentality draws endorsement from an unapologetic political leadership as we saw in the Dadri murder. The Indian PM sat back for days in his patent silence over such issues and then called for “Hindu-Muslim harmony” as if it was not a cold-blooded murder but a case of Hindu-Muslim riot with each community paying back the other. This mindset is fast taking over India’s new religiously-driven political scene making violence a handy substitute for dialogue. Hindu extremists are also increasingly exercising a monopoly over violence against groups or individuals they consider as their opponents as if it is constitutionally-sanctioned to them.

In his speech, Kanhaiya was contending this spread and use of brazen violence by Hindu extremists across India. “I want to challenge the RSS on behalf of JNU for a debate on the concept of violence. We want to question the ABVP that whose blood do you want to spread in this country?”

It is comical to see the ground shaking under this giant of an empire just because of some sloganeering against it in a university campus

While this violence goes unpardoned by the ruling class and even eulogised under the fig leafs of “religious sentiment” and “nationalistic feelings”, Kanhaiya’s speech, the alleged sloganeering at JNU and the Afzal-remembrance function are promptly treated as treasonous inviting arrests and witch hunts.

If Kanhaiya was raising relevant issues and calling for a debate and not for abetment to violence against the State, why then did the republic shake at its base? Why did mere slogan shouting invite the wrath of the republic? The answers are amusing in a cursory reading of the events, but enlightening in a comprehensive one. These readings tell you something about the idiocy residing in the highest of the high offices. They also reveal a disturbing picture of a republic whose movers and shakers think and act in ultra-constitutional ways.

The order of flying the Indian flag at 207 metres (207 out of all the figures!) atop all central universities was issued in immediate response to the happenings at JNU. It makes for a curious observation and useful commentary on the republic. It was almost an anxious republic trying to reassure itself that the republic is safe and in no immediate danger of an atrophy because of some slogans shouting at a university campus. It establishes India’s patriotism doesn’t reside in this country’s substance and spirit, but in symbolism and its exhibitionist display. It also tells us something about the confidence of India’s ruling class in its own country. It also points to some existential fear which the establishment tries to offset sometimes by puerile means and at times by punitive actions.

And if such absurdity wasn’t enough, the JNU Registrar recently added more to it. He said that to “instil nationalism” in the students, the University is considering a string of measures. “We will be looking at various ways to do this. Having a wall of fame with soldiers’ names and photographs, showcasing a military tank or artillery,” is what the Registrar was quoted as saying after some ex-army generals had a meeting with the University’s VC. Now if you need to have tanks on university campuses to “instil nationalism” and make the students believe in their own country, there is something seriously wrong here. Tanks are meant for enemies, not your own people. And what sort of “nationalism” is this that has to be administered from the turret of a tank?

JNU students, scholars and faculty form a human chain against the govt crackdown Photo: A Waseem
JNU students, scholars and faculty form a human chain against the govt crackdown. Photo: A Waseem

The Indian government’s response to the JNU events drew condemnation from over 130 eminent scholars, writers, academicians and others from around the world. These included Noam Chomsky, Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk and other men and women of international repute. In a signed statement released worldwide this is what they had to say, “…we not only condemn the culture of authoritarian menace that the present government in India has generated, but urge all those genuinely concerned about the future of India and Indian universities to protest in wide mobilisation against it.” This is quite an egg on the face of the government whose head has been hopping from country to country, bear hugging dignitaries and presenting himself to the world as India’s new-age poster boy. The statement goes further terming the government actions as shameful. “We have learnt of the shameful act of the Indian government which, invoking sedition laws formulated by India’s colonial rulers, ordered the police to enter the Jawaharlal Nehru University campus and unlawfully arrest a student leader, Mr. Kanhaiya Kumar, on charges of inciting violence — without any proof whatever of such wrongdoing on his part.” The statement makes a categorical and bold reference to Kashmir and its military subjugation by India. “On the previous day, at some other event, which he (Kanhaiya) had no part in organising and at which he did not speak, a handful of other students, not even identifiable as students of the university, were shouting slogans about the rights of Kashmiris to independence from Indian military oppression over the last many decades.” Handling of the JNU events by the Indian government with arrests and sedition charges thus also brought into focus many of India’s other sins in its underbelly.

Actions following the JNU episode did not make India a safe country either. It made it even more dangerous as it showed the State’s eagerness to shut down debate and dialogue on issues not all have the same views about. It put in open global display the republic’s proclivity to use its police force and legal system against those who disagree with the republic’s one-sided narratives. It would have taken people across the border, the republic’s supposed perennial enemies, some hard lobbying and huge resources to prove to the world that India is getting ‘Pakistanised’. It also exposed how jittery even a giant of a country like India spread over 328 million square kilometres can get when its power structures, policies and methods of maintaining the republic by manipulating the people are called into question.

A crucial issue of the JNU story is the extent to which university campuses can, or cannot, go as spaces of critical inquiry and for airing views that may collide with the State’s narrative

In a way the ‘idea’ of India is fast becoming its own contradiction and the country itself is getting mired in those contradictions. On one hand, India is liberally opening up itself and its economy to the world; it is opening up its diplomatic wings to play a broader global role as it eyes the UN Security Council seat. But on the other hand, it is internally becoming increasingly parochial and closing down ideologically and politically on its own people and in the lands it controls. On one hand, it traces its creation as a nation-state to Gandhi’s non-violence, but on the other finds itself resorting to violence to maintain that creation.  On one hand it is a military giant, but on the other finds itself so vulnerable from internal fissures that the military muscle seems of no use. On one hand, it has impregnable defences; on the other, it feels perennially threatened even by a protest on a university campus. On one hand, it has repeatedly exhibited its punitive capacity to crush any rebellion through brutal means; on the other, it sees itself being pushed to the precipice even by mere slogan shouting.

Some explanations to these contradictions can be found  by looking at India’s past and in its conception 70 years ago.

Colonisation always leaves the colonised people defiled. India obviously internalised the means and methods of its former coloniser and turned the same, through a different vocabulary, to control the ‘liberated’ people as well as the ones occupied by deception. The way sedition laws are being slapped around in the JNU case are symptomatic of this internalisation of the former coloniser’s attributes. State actions we witness in Kashmir to crush the azadi movement also run so close and parallel to India’s former coloniser’s features. Curiously, the response from Kashmiris is also fundamentally the same as Indian’s response to British colonisation. But in the State’s lexicon, the latter is eulogised as a freedom movement, the former is criminalised, condemned and derisively dismissed in epithets of ‘anti-national’ activities. This mindset has been in open display over the JNU events where students were quickly linked to terrorists and dubbed anti-national. With the transfer of the JNU sedition case to anti-terrorist cell by the Delhi police, this mindset stands out in relief where the State sees no difference between student activism and terrorism. It is in play wherever the State’s cleverly-crafted self-serving means and methods of managing and manipulating the people are questioned.

Many decades ago Faiz  penned this couplet as a commentary on the parochialism of the mullahs and self-appointed religious clerics:

Unn ko Islam kae lutnae ka darr itna hai ki

Abb woh kafir ko bhi Musalmaan nahi hounae daetae

(They are so fearful that Islam may fall apart That now, they don’t let even the nonbeliever to become a Muslim)

In the present context it can perhaps be rephrased as:

Unn ko Hindustan kae lutnae ka darr itna hai ki

Abb woh Hindustani ko bhi mun’h kholnae nahi daetae 

(They are so fearful that India may break apart That now, they don’t let even Indians speak)

The State’s and part of Indian media’s extremist response to the happenings at JNU also point to some deep insecurities and existential anxieties of the republic.

Let’s not forget that India came into being as a result of decolonisation by the British empire following the catastrophe of the second world war and the unbearable costs it imposed on maintaining such empires. True, there was a genuine anti-British campaign in then India, but probably both India and Pakistan were hurriedly-assembled countries as the British wanted a quick retreat. Or to quote Salman Rushdie, they were not “sufficiently imagined”. The Frankenstein stitching of these countries was a risky business as the overwhelming anti-British feelings drove out all cool logic of assessing the hazards of shoving so many nationalities and cultures into a single tent. It made them precarious territorial constructs dangerous for the people living within these confines. Past 70 years have proved that. Both India and Pakistan have taken frequent recourse to military violence and political subterfuge to subjugate people who do not subscribe to the “nationhood” of these countries and want to chart out their own course.

When you look at India’s map, it is a humongous land mass with disparate and numerous cultures, nations, languages and what you have — something that is rolled out as ‘unity in diversity’, however absurd this may sound. It would be safe to call India an empire. It has all the attributes of one. But all empires are inherently shaky and unsure of themselves despite being gigantic and powerful. They perpetually live in the fear of falling apart hence the overbearing use and equally overwhelming stress on abstract semantic contraptions like “sovereignty”, “national integrity”, “territorial integrity”, “national interest”, etc, and the accompanying sanctification of these terms.

The JNU events and their aftermath have thrown up some awkward questions for the empire. Who is an Indian? How to define an Indian? Who should sit in judgement of that definition? Who should certify a person as being an Indian? These questions arise from contradictions inherent in this empire and its 70-year long struggle to somehow morph itself into a monolith — nation-state which it never can be because of the multiplicity of nations that constitute it. More so, in the current times when the dominant religion is being so shamelessly applied to keep the empire one piece in clear infringement of empire’s constitution. The republic also seems to be wrestling with its own definition and raison d’être.

It is comical to see the ground shaking under this giant of an empire just because of some sloganeering against it in a university campus. The empire stands out as its own caricature when you backdrop it with its war-like response to the JNU events. While the current emperor is known worldwide for his high couture, the empire itself has suddenly discovered that it has no clothes. And has found it convenient to strike back to hide some of the shame.

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    By: Faheen

    No biography available at this time

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