Cracking down on student protests augurs ill for Indian democracy

The dissent by young India is being cast as a diabolical anti-national act, even while many of the leaders in the BJP led government cut their teeth in politics during their student days, writes C Uday Bhaskar for South Asia Monitor 
student protest

The brutal, premeditated attack on the students and faculty of JNU (Jawaharlal Nehru University )  by a group of masked hoodlums on Sunday (Jan 5) and the visible reluctance of Delhi Police to act against the perpetrators of this violence raises some disturbing questions about the health of Indian democracy and the eroding faith of the young citizen in the Indian state.

Ironically, a week later (January 12),  the 158th birth anniversary of Swami Vivekananda, was celebrated nation-wide as National Youth Day.   In the intervening seven days after the dastardly attack on JNU, young India as represented in the many universities and colleges across the country expressed their solidarity with their injured colleagues in JNU and the other two universities that have been targeted – the Jamia Milia Islamia in Delhi and the Aligarh Muslim University.

Against this seething discontent among the youth who were protesting against the constitutional transgressions embedded in the  CAA (Citizenship Amendment Act)  and other citizen registration measures  linked to religion,  Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in his address  to the youth, to commemorate the philosopher-saint, urged young Indians “to forget everything and dedicate their lives to Mother India.” Modi  further dwelt on the abiding relevance of harmony and compassion and spoke of a ‘grand vision’ for the youth. But the disconnect with the ground reality is all too stark to be ignored.

What began as a limited protest against a sudden and steep fee hike by the  JNU students acquired a national footprint over the CAA that began in Assam and soon spread to major universities. The linking of citizenship to religion and the inherent anti-Muslim bias was perceived to be a means of distorting the spirit of the Constitution and the protests in Aligarh and Jamia  in December permeated the larger body of civil society across India – from the common citizen to retired bureaucrats, academics,  film celebrities and other strata that included the heroic housewives of Shaheen Bagh, a Muslim-dominated residential neighbourhood near the Jamia university in the capital.

Harmony, compassion and dialogue have been missing in the manner in which the state has dealt with the current student protests. The dissent by young India is being cast as a diabolical anti-national act, even while many of the leaders in the BJP led government cut their teeth in politics during their student days. Some of them proudly refer to their stand during the Emergency rule imposed by then PM Indira Gandhi in the mid-1970s when they resisted the excesses of the state and peaceful protest was upheld as a fundamental and sacred right of the citizen in a democracy.

Regrettably, the manner in which the local police in Uttar Pradesh and Delhi have dealt with the anti-CAA protests is a case of the guardian turning predator. In an extremely reprehensible case. Sadaf Jafar, a woman activist in Lucknow, was taken into custody and in her words “kicked in the stomach” by a UP Police officer for being part of a peaceful protest.

One of the principal reasons why many young Indian citizens are losing faith in the state is the manner in which force is being used to suppress dissent and frame such peaceful acts as being seditious. In 1918 German sociologist Max Weber spoke of the centrality of “legitimacy” in relation to the use of force by the state and the need to ensure that this sanctity remained inviolate in relation to the citizen.

Paradoxically, in recent months the Indian state has used force disproportionately to curb dissent and, in many cases of violence, the local police have either tacitly endorsed such attacks by the perpetrators or turned a blind eye as in the case of JNU.

An independent, impartial probe into the manner in which police have been deployed to quell student protests  and their use of force is imperative to restore the credibility of the premier law enforcement agency. Partisan political interference, as in the case of JNU, has cast serious aspersions on the home ministry under whose direct control the Delhi Police functions.

In a Kafkaesque turn of events, the injured victims in the JNU case have been charged with breaking the law. These developments augur ill for the vitality of Indian democracy and the spirit of the Constitution that will be celebrated on January 26, India’s Republic Day. 

(The writer is Director, SPS)

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