February 27, 2017

The BJP’s jihad against free speech threatens Indian democracy say Shoaib Daniyal

scroll.in - 27 February 2017

The Big Story: Shut up


As finance minister, Arun Jaitley is expected to showcase India’s best qualities when travelling abroad. Unfortunately, during a speech at the London School of Economics on the weekend, he put forward a thesis that makes the country look rather bad. The finance minister spoke of a shadowy “alliance of subversion” that has taken over college campuses (he did not explain how) and went on to call for limits on free speech.
Déjà vu from last year. In February 2016, news channels like Zee News, sympathetic to the government, accused some students of Jawaharlal Nehru University of shouting slogans that were described as anti-national. As chaos followed and JNU Student’s Union President Kanhaiya Kumar was assaulted by mobs in the city’s courts, the frenzy did not actually culminate in a legal case. Till today, more than a year after cases of sedition were filed, the Delhi Police has been unable to even file a chargesheet in the matter.
It is clear that the propaganda around the slogans was a bogey. There was nothing to the episode beyond ideas that amount to a thoughtcrime in the eyes of many in the BJP and its fans. Yet, efforts to clamp down on free speech and thought continue. That the Union finance minister should think of floating another anti-national balloon to clamp down tighter on civil rights is a scary proposition.
There have been numerous warnings of how ultra-nationalism, of subverting the individual to the tyranny of the collective, has severely harmed human rights. This was how fascism arose in Europe in the first half of the twentieth century, resulting in the terrible crimes of Stalin in Soviet Russia. This was how Indira’s Gandhi was able to subvert the Constitution during the Emergency.
Already a pall of fear hangs over Delhi University, following the violence in Ramjas College last week by the BJP’s student outfit, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, who were protesting against an invitation to JNU scholar Umar Khalid to speak at an academic seminar. Teachers are now afraid of discussing topics like Kashmir for fear of a backlash from the BJP and others who claim to be the keepers of the nationalist spirit. On Twitter, the daughter of an armyman killed in the Kargil War who spoke up against the ABVP and its attacks has received rape threats.

This climate of jingoism might be good for the BJP and may even help it win elections. But it will have a corrosive effect on India. Free speech and thought are the bedrock of any society. Without these, the very functioning of democracy is threatened.

The Big Scroll

At what point can free speech cross over to seditious territory – and who decides?