15 FEBRUARY 2016
State overreach on the campus
The Union government’s response to the recent developments at Jawaharlal Nehru University betrays a disquieting intent to create an atmosphere of fear amongst its students and teachers. The rationale for the police action was an event to mark the anniversary of the execution of Afzal Guru, a convict in the Parliament attack case, and it is alleged that slogans were raised against India’s sovereignty. However, unless there was actual incitement to violence, there really was no case for the police to swoop down on the campus, arrest students, and slap charges of sedition and criminal conspiracy on them. The Delhi Police seemed to have taken the cue from a remark made by Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh that “anti-national activities” would not be tolerated, and invoked the draconian pre-Constitution law of sedition. The arrest of Kanhaiya Kumar, president of the JNU Students’ Union, who belongs to the All-India Students’ Federation, an organisation known to be affiliated to the CPI, is quite inexplicable, except in terms of the theory that he was chosen for his political antipathy to the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, the RSS’s student wing. Neither his union nor the party to which it is affiliated supports separatism in Kashmir or opposes parliamentary democracy. The union has in fact disassociated itself from the views expressed by a small group of students who organised the event. Yet, an impression is sought to be created that Mr. Kumar and many other like-minded student activists in JNU are ‘anti-national’.
Once again, Section 124-A of the Indian Penal Code, which makes sedition punishable with life imprisonment, has been casually invoked despite the Supreme Court repeatedly cautioning that even words indicating disaffection against the state will not constitute the offence, unless there is a call for violence or a pernicious tendency to create public disorder. It is difficult to dismiss the police action as a routine or expected response by the state to reports of allegedly anti-national speeches. The JNU campus nurtures political opinion of all shades. It is a haven for legitimate dissent and a locus of inevitable differences. Its atmosphere should not be undermined by some to whom its intellectual space is an eyesore. In recent times, the suicide of a scholar in the University of Hyderabad roiled the student community across the country and created an upsurge against the ruling dispensation wielding its ideological influence on campus activities. The misconceived manner in which Afzal Guru was commemorated by a handful of JNU students should not be a provocation for tarring the students’ union with the brush of alleged anti-nationalism. The government should not sense in these developments an opportunity to suppress all dissent and seek to kill the ideological orientation of some student groups. Deviation from its own notion of nationalism cannot be treated as sedition. The line between dissent and treason may be thin to some, but the ability to distinguish between the two is a constitutional duty of the state. And given the history of its misuse and its incompatibility with a modern Constitution, Section 124-A of the IPC ought to be junked altogether.
War and possible peace in Syria
The agreement reached in Munich by major world powers, including the United States and Russia, to work towards a cessation of hostilities in Syria within a week is the most constructive step yet to find a political solution to the country’s civil war. For years, the world looked away when Syria was transformed into a geopolitical battlefield where several countries were involved, either directly or through their proxies, to maximise their interests. The war has nearly destroyed the country, triggering an unprecedented humanitarian crisis. A report released last week by the Syrian Centre for Policy Research paints a picture graver than what even the UN had estimated. About 470,000 people have been killed and 1.9 million injured since the crisis began in March 2011. Nearly 45 per cent of the population has been displaced, while life expectancy has dropped from 70 to 55.4 in five years. That a civil war in a small nation of about 23 million people was allowed to get this catastrophic, itself points to the failures of the international system.
The positive development in the Munich agreement is that both Russia and the U.S. have strongly come out for a cessation of hostilities. Russia is directly backing the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, while the U.S. and its allies, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, support the anti-regime rebels. To be sure, both blocs have different solutions to offer for the crisis. While the Russians want the regime to be sustained, with or without Mr. Assad, the Americans and their allies want Mr. Assad to go. Still, there is some common ground. Both Washington and Moscow are fighting the Islamic State. Despite its military intervention in favour of the Assad regime, Russia is consistently pushing for an eventual political solution. The U.S. has over the years mellowed its hardline stand. Though it still calls for Mr. Assad’s ouster, it doesn’t say when he should go. This common ground opens the possibilities for a ceasefire, which, if it is put in place successfully, could set the stage for serious negotiations. But even the implementation of a ceasefire faces serious challenges. Since the Russian intervention, the regime forces have made substantial advances on the ground. The weakening of rebel positions has upset their regional backers. Saudi Arabia and Turkey have announced they are considering sending ground troops to Syria. If they do that, Russia would be forced to expand their involvement, which would dangerously escalate the crisis. Another key question is whether President Assad, already emboldened by the military advances made, would be ready to make concessions. In an interview last week he vowed to retake the whole of the country by force. But after the near-total destruction of Syria, it is delusional to think of a military solution. If the U.S. and Russia are committed to the Munich agreement, they should put serious pressure on their allies and bring them to the table. That’s the only way forward for Syria.