An Open Letter To Justice Pratibha Rani From An Ex-JNU and Ex-FTII Student

Mohit Priyadarshi

Dear Madam,

Like millions of my fellow citizens, I was eagerly waiting for your interim verdict on the bail application of JNUSU president, Kanhaiya Kumar, who was wrongly framed in a “sedition” case by people in positions of power.

When I received the news that Kanhaiya was granted interim bail for six months by the Delhi High Court, I felt elated, partly because I was relieved at the fact that our judiciary was not yet compromised, and partly because I strongly believe that politically conscious students like Kanhaiya Kumar, Umar Khalid and Anirban Bhattacharya should have the right to organize peaceful events within the premises of a university, without being hounded either by the administration, or their event being vandalized by politically-conspiring elements from without.

In that regard, the release of Kanhaiya from jail reinforced my belief that, no matter how compromised the structures of our current state apparatus, the judiciary works as an autonomous unit within a democracy, one which bases its opinions squarely on facts.

But as ecstatic as I was at the news, I felt particularly disturbed when I read the entire court order. It left me with a lurch in my stomach.

I found the court order hilarious, like many of my friends, but I also found it equally disappointing.

Let me explain why.

Hilarious, because, I did not expect a court order regarding the bail of a student charged of “sedition” to start with a patriotic song from a Bollywood movie. From Upkar, to be precise, starring Manoj Kumar as the fearless, self-effacing “Bharat”. Are we to learn patriotism from Manoj Kumar — seriously?

Is that the level of our political discourse these days? Mere Desh Ki Dharti might be a good song, but are we to expect even courts indulge in jingoistic, needlessly melodramatic rhetoric, and not to talk about facts?

Court orders, as far as I know, are not vehicles for expressing one’s penchant for literature, or music, or even expound on one’s ideas of nationalism. They are meant to be based on evidence.

Why then, after all the furore that Kanhaiya’s case generated in the last fortnight or so, in the face of complete absence of any evidence in the possession of Delhi police against Kanhaiya, after doctored videos were legitimately sourced to a political aide of our MHRD minister and the newsrooms of some media channels, did the court still have to fall in the trap of defining the contours of the case in a reductionist, and absolutely fabricated, “nationalist” vs “anti-nationalist” binary?

Do you also think all people in our country are either “nationalist” or “anti-nationalist”, madam? Will you also leave no space for being grey?

I expected the court order to be driven by rationale, evidence, facts. I expected it to be sparse and precise, not laden with unwarranted hyperbole.

Be that as it may, you were of course fully entitled to make your observations.

But, just when I thought I had the read the worst part of the court order and would somehow swallow it like a bitter pill, I read this:

While dealing with the bail application of the petitioner, it has to be kept in mind by all concerned that they are enjoying this freedom only because our borders are guarded by our armed and paramilitary forces. Our forces are protecting our frontiers in the most difficult terrain in the world i.e. Siachen Glacier or Rann of Kutch.”

That makes my heart skip a beat, madam.

Do we have nothing better to do than to make our soldiers the pawns every time? First BJP did it, then Arnab Goswami, and now even the courts?

If a soldier is a nation’s ultimate martyr, shouldn’t we all be ashamed for not being stationed, like you say, at the Siachen Glacier or the Rann of Kutch?

Why does the soldier become a distorted prism to validate our own patriotism?

I think such an idea of nationalism is misplaced and dangerous. By its sheer logic, someone who is corrupt can praise soldiers and can be redeemed as a “nationalist”, while somebody who simply questions the state’s decision to position these same soldiers, and getting them killed in a war — sometimes against our own people — will be deemed “anti-national.”

As if that was not enough, you again emphasized the point about our soldiers when you wrote:

“Suffice it to note that such persons enjoy the freedom to raise such slogans in the comfort of University Campus but without realizing that they are in this safe environment because our forces are there at the battle field situated at the highest altitude of the world where even the oxygen is so scarce that those who are shouting anti-national slogans holding posters of Afzal Guru and Maqbool Bhatt close to their chest honoring their martyrdom, may not be even able to withstand those conditions for an hour even.

The kind of slogans raised may have demoralizing effect on the family of those martyrs who returned home in coffin draped in tricolor.”

Being a former student of JNU, I can tell you that holding an event on campus to discuss Kashmir and Afzal Guru’s fate does not mean students are keeping him close to their hearts. It is the ghost of Afzal Guru that haunts them. These are students merely asking pertinent questions about the so-called “trial” meted out to Guru which, in their understanding of the whole case, was not completely just. They are expecting our democracy — and our judiciary — to be accountable and transparent in its decisions. Is that a lot to ask in a democratic country?

Which essentially brings us to the following question: is discussing Kashmir and having an opinion about Kashmir an “anti-national” act in itself?

Because if it is, then it is certainly not a democracy we are living in.

Moreover, not only do you manage to emphatically undermine serious scholars like Kanhaiya Kumar, who have worked through countless obstacles to get the education they deserve, but you undermine the academy — one of the most important institutions of a functioning democracy.

Where will the world’s democracies be if student voices, progressive voices, and radical voices, are stifled with the butt of a surcharged — but nonetheless hollow — political discourse?

To conclude your court order, madam, you wrote the following:

“The investigation in this case is at nascent stage. The thoughts reflected in the slogans raised by some of the students of JNU who organized and participated in that programme cannot be claimed to be protected as fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression. I consider this as a kind of infection from which such students are suffering which needs to be controlled/cured before it becomes an epidemic.

Whenever some infection is spread in a limb, effort is made to cure the same by giving antibiotics orally and if that does not work, by following second line of treatment. Sometimes it may require surgical intervention also. However, if the infection results in infecting the limb to the extent that it becomes gangrene, amputation is the only treatment.”

You claim that the investigation is at a nascent stage, and yet you have managed to draw so many inferences from it at such an early stage?

You have gone so far as to suggest that student activism is an “infection” which needs to be cured before it “becomes an epidemic.”

Without even going into the completely flimsy analogy you draw here, madam, but as a student who has received education from three different public-funded institutions of our country, I would like to contend that student activism is absolutely essential for the well-being of a democracy.

The academy, and its students, do not live and breathe in a vacuum, but are part of a socio-economic landscape that they have every right to question and criticize. A nation of unthinking students and zombie patriots will forever stand in a rut, madam, eternally condemned to stagnation.

If students and teachers in a university do not question the status quo, do not look at alternative methods of alleviating oppression, do not create a space conducive to critical enquiry, then what kind of students do we wish to create?

We certainly do not want a nation full of sheep, madam.

To quote Terry Eagleton, a prominent literary theorist:

“The role of academia should be do challenge status quo in the name of justice, tradition, imagination, human welfare, the free play of the mind or alternative visions of the future. A critical reflection on human values and principles should be central to everything that goes on in universities, not just to the study of Rembrandt or Rimbaud.” 

As a former student of both JNU and FTII, two institutes of higher education which have forever stood as bastions of critical enquiry in our country, and which have recently found themselves becoming the centers of confrontation against the ruling regime, I would like to say that these two institutes have provided me with the courage, and the means, to question, agitate, and finally, contribute in a meaningful way towards the betterment of our people.

You may think I am speaking out of my turn, madam, but please don’t try to kill the student in me.

(The writer of this article is a former JNU and FTII student, a struggling filmmaker, and a blogger who covers politics and cinema in national and international blogs).