JNU, Sedition and Marx. Groucho Marx.

Utkarsh Adhrit

I am a Marxist – of the Groucho tendency.

The above words are one of the many beautiful slogans that emerged out from the May 1968 events in France when a massive protest broke out against the government. Workers, students, teachers and intellectuals all came together to register their dissent against the establishment, be it capitalism or plutocracy. The situation was so bad that the president, Charles de Gaulle, had to leave the country, anticipating the fall of his government. He did indeed dissolve the assembly and called for elections only to win with the greatest majority in French Parliamentary history.

It was only during these events that the famous existentialist philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre, was arrested for participating in the events. This was a man who had once defended violence against France carried out by the Algerians demanding independence from French occupation. Surely, according to the definitions being thrown around right now, he was an “anti-national”. And yet the same President intervened saying, “You don’t arrest Voltaire”. (Compare that to the contrasting silence of our Prime Minister on the murder of Marxist intellectuals.)

Groucho Marx on TelevisionBut why is a 50 year old event in France relevant in India today? The connection is glaringly obvious. How can we, as a country, allow ourselves to be gripped with such utterly irrational paranoia that arose by mere sloganeering of a few young students? Is it not an insult to the collective intelligence, and conscience, of a country of 1.4 billion people? Why are we so insecure to slap something as serious as sedition on anyone who seeks to voice an unpopular opinion? While the courts decide whether or not those students were actually guilty of sedition, a greater question lies beneath the mass hysteria of “certified nationalism” and farcical journalism – why does India need a sinister law framed by our rulers over 150 years ago?

This wouldn’t be the first time when a law would be repealed. There are certain laws which need to be upgraded or abolished altogether. Section 377 is a fine example. Constitution isn’t a holy book and it mustn’t be, for the sake of the very democracy that it safeguards, elevated to such a status. Moreover, Section 124(A) of the IPC is inherently in contradiction to the Article 19 of the Indian Constitution. As a modern democracy, we must recognize these basic fundamental rights and do away with laws that keep us in the not-so democratic company of Iran, Saudi Arabia and Sudan.

The most important public intellectual of the United States, Noam Chomsky, calls USA, “the biggest terrorist state in the world”. Describing every single US post WW2 president as being worthy to stand trial for war crimes, he certainly possesses his fair share of “anti-national” sentiments. How can he be the face of the probably the world’s finest institution in MIT, let alone not in jail? The act of questioning Afzal Guru’s complicated trial surely fades in comparison to Prof.Chomsky’s remarks. Moreover, the demand for self-determination in Kashmir doesn’t really has the same “anti-nationalism” of Sartre’s endorsement of Algerian violence. If Israeli intellectuals in Tel Aviv can call for a Palestinian state, why can’t our students and intellectuals opine about Kashmir without being threatened with Sec. 124 (A). The remarks like, “Bhaarat ki Barbaadi”, indeed offensive, don’t really amount to any potent threat to India and thus don’t require such aggressive countermeasures. If anything the clampdown is as Frederick Douglas puts it, “violation of the rights of both the speaker and the hearer”. Instead of understanding and analysing why the chants took place, the administration is taking a simplistic and fantastical view of the entire situation that feeds the same paranoia that leads to the rise of Fascism. What happened at JNU wasn’t isolated hooliganism but a mere reflection of ideologies that pervade various parts of India. Of course, Kanhaiya and Umar are no Sartre and Chomsky, but they are thinking human beings with their own respective opinions. The word University comes from the word Universe; in other words, University is a place for universal opinions. For a thriving democracy, the autonomy of its Universities is a necessary condition.

A more repellent argument stems from the false premise that the country of India will be under security threat if this law were to be abolished. Taking into account the impotence of this law to actually convict anyone, surely this argument encompasses more Machiavellian connotations than legitimate concerns. It has been reduced to a weapon of the incumbent political party and ideology to suppress criticism.

On a more ideologically provocative note, why are people who are threatening to shoot down students allowed to roam free? Is there any greater irony and hypocrisy when a certain organization that threatened the secular (probably the most hated and important aspect of our democracy) fabric of India in 1991, and got banned for it, hands out lessons in patriotism?

But I choose to suppress my impulse for any ideological discourse. I am merely stating a case for the most fundamental of freedoms – of speech, expression and association. It shouldn’t matter whether I am a Marxist, Socialist, Anarchist, Maoist, Syndicalist, Situationist, Mutualist, Social Democrat, Capitalist or even Fascist. What matters is my rights, or more precisely, our rights; my tendency is an irrelevance.

We need to take a hard look at ourselves. Jingoism and aggressive nationalism are as dangerous, if not more, as religious fanaticism. As a citizen of India, I stand with Umar Khalid and Kanhaiya Kumar, and above all, the right to dissent.

For certain media outlets, though, trialling students using emotions as a cloak to disguise prejudices, I believe Groucho Marxism has the answer:

“I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book.”