JNU student Umar Khalid, who is out on bail in a sedition case kicked off another controversy in July this year by comparing Burhan Wani, the Hizbul Mujahideen commander who was gunned down to a revolutionary. In a facebook post that was quickly removed hours later, he said,
“I don’t care if I fall as long as someone else picks up my gun and keeps on shooting. These were the words of Che Guevara, but could have just been Burhan Wani’s too,” .
In yet another incident, the University of Hyderabad (UoH) was compelled to issue a notice on Umar Khalid for trespassing into its campus as he was all set to incite a new ideological violence in their campus. After supporting Afzal Guru, Khalid is now travelling the length and breadth of this country expressing his sympathies with Burhan Wani !!!.
The 2016 JNU protests, so terrible and tragic, in retrospective, have given us reason to think through yet again what freedom of expression should come to mean. Dissident political opinions and even separatist ideologies are entitled to legal tolerance in a democratic society, but is this right absolute ? In a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic country such as India, still struggling to remain as one political entity, should secessionist ideologies and activists be held accountable for their speeches or limited in the public platforms they use ?
Freedom of expression does not mean that anyone has the right to be heard at any time or in any forum, no matter what. There are times when lines can and must be drawn for reasons both moral and legal, but there are other times when it is inappropriate and wrong to draw such lines. Extremes of everything, be it right-wing nationalism or unbridled freedom of expression (characteristic to left-liberalism), is what we can indubitably term “extremisim”. Both these extremes should be subject to moral and legal boundaries in a balanced society. The question that arises then is, who decides these boundries and what are they ?. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) in Article 19 recognises that freedom of expression should be subject to certain limitations such as (1) respect of the rights or reputation of others (2) the protection of national security or of public order (3) public health or morals.
Has the recent demonstrations and sloganeering in JNU adhered to the said limitations ? When one carefully analyses the narrative of students like Komal Mohite and Umar Khalid of the JNU, one realises that their polemics has nothing to do with vocalisation of political dissent and leftism but rather appears to be secessionist activism in the garb and veneer of leftist intellectualization. Although leftist politicians and print media have been quick to grab the opportunity and piggy back on these students, one cannot see it as anything more than a political manoeuvring and repositioning against their political opponents – the right wing BJP.
The more we convert the hanging of Afzal Guru in to a discussion about capital punishment, and the more we convert the arrest of secessionist students in to arguments on relevance of our sedition law, we make martyrs, victims and heroes out of criminals, and shift the focus entirely away from the substantive merits of the individual crime and criminals per se. Neverthless, political and intellectual debates must be carried out in university campuses, not only in this case but in every case where the death penalty is ordered or sedition law is applied; but in a multi-partisan forum with an objectivity and decorum truly reflective of the academia. Universities must remain a space for critical engagement and free thought, but subject to certain limitations as enshrined in the ICCPR. It is our right as citizens of a free country to question the government, its capricious rule, to organize against percieved injustice and maintain the right to political dissent above all. However that right of dissent and agitation cannot come to mean “Bharat Ki Barbaati tak or Solah tukde honge”