Freedom of expression in India has been under threat for a while now and with an unprecedented rise in suppression of campus voices, India stands at crossroads.
Two weeks since violent clashes between students’ organisations in the capital of India, New Delhi after controversies leading to the cancellation of a debate in a university, the debate on the newly enshrined concept of ‘anti-national’ is raging on. With the ardently polarised categorisation of a non-conforming student who dares questions the acts of a democratic state as an ‘anti-national’ engaging in sedition, the choice to express becomes a hard one. As a country that is increasingly failing to ensure citizens’ liberty to speak freely and protecting their rights in the face of accusations of a serious nature, India faces a difficult question. Does the ‘nation’, defined by those who are on the right side of the ruling party’s ideological roots in India, truly face a threat or are perceptions shaping realities over facts?
Amnesty International’s executive director in India, Aakar Patel, released a press statement after violence broke out in Ramjas College in New Delhi, during a protest against the cancellation of the seminar in question, allegedly led by the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), whose opposition led to the cancellation of the seminar. Students as well as professors were reportedly attacked along with journalists. “Universities are supposed to be safe spaces for debates and discussions. But, the events at Ramjas College are a shameful reminder of how intimidation and threats continue to restrict free speech on university campuses,” Patel said. Counter-protests against the violence by ABVP were launched, which found retaliation with rallies by the ABVP urging exclusion of left-wing politics from campuses among other things. Titu Bardhan, an MA student of Political Science in Delhi University, who attended the march in Ramjas College, stated, “When I was marching in support of Ramjas students the very next day after the brawl at seminar, I was attacked by ABVP goons with bricks and metal knuckles inside the march. I feel, this was the gravest injury on my freedom of expression.”
Taking up the role of the vanguards of the students’ collective idea of the nation, ABVP, through their affiliation to the ruling Bharaitya Janata Party’s (BJP) ideological ‘family elder’, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sang(RSS), pride themselves in defending the abstract ‘Bharat Mata’, regardless of violation of basic rights of the ‘leftists’. Even as the current government has condemned the violence, the question of free speech is a matter of debate. The argument for free speech by those deviating from the doctrines of the ideal vision of an Indian, has become a point of contention from the right. Leaders, such Kiren Rijiju, Minister of State for Home Affairs, and various BJP members have interpreted the events in a separate fashion and alleged threat to sovereignty of the country in the name of free speech.
Freedom of expression is a fundamental right, but, let’s not support the extremists & anti-national groups. pic.twitter.com/TDH68BEw76
— Kiren Rijiju (@KirenRijiju) March 4, 2017
Whether events at Jawaharlal National University last year or peaceful protests by students such as Gurmehar Kaur against the violent turn of events led by ABVP, which recently led to widespread social media debate, the idea of free speech in India has come under the scanner.
The battleground of ideology has found itself a platform on social media outlets, such as Facebook and Twitter, with people finding a space to collectivise, express and engage in debates. However, this is not without its own set of problems. The voices speaking against groups such as ABVP, who have gained a monopoly over violence owing to their direct affiliation to the party in power, have been challenged with threats of violence of both physical and sexual nature, rather than a constructive and engaging debate on why the mighty India faces a threat from those who are to shape its future, the students. Pritha Roy, a Masters Student of Conflict Analysis and Peace Building at Jamia Millia Islamia Institute in New Delhi expressed her concerns, “The role played by social media is a rather dicey one; while on one hand, it offers freedom of expression to all irrespective of their social standing, on the other, its ease-of-accessibility leads to escalation/de-escalation from the virtual world to the reality we co-exist in. It is owing to both factors that, I believe, there is, indeed, a deepening of polarisation between groups with steadily decreasing tolerance for alternative opinions.”
Questioning allegations of human rights violence in Kashmir, lending voice to tribal rights, for alternative discourses are some of the ‘anti-national’ activities that ‘extremist, left-wing Maoists’ are engaging in. Completely obliterating the tradition and norm of the university as a space for debate, the idea of India is so fragile today that sedition charges are being slapped on students and teachers. Recent history is replete with examples of irony, when pointing out intolerance is met with acts of violent intolerance. Whether it has been Bollywood stars such as Aamir Khan or Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen, being called out for their perception of the social forces on one hand and any student or youth who hasn’t deemed it fit or necessary to be affiliated with the ABVP on the other, the very ethos of a democratic society with constitutionally defined rights is coming under attack as the ‘majority’ sways to the ‘right-wing’ sentiments in India.