The Azadi debate is back on primetime television with the Delhi Police filing charge sheet in the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) sloganeering case of February 2016. Apart from left student leaders Kanhaiya Kumar, Umar Khalid, and Anirban Bhattacharya, seven Kashmiri boys from various institutions, including Jamia Milia Islamia, have been slapped sedition charge by the police, based on verified video footage.
Some see in this an opportunity to bring ‘sedition’ itself at the centre of the debate, calling it a colonial relic that goes against the grain of democracy. According to them, sedition is an act against the government – which is not the same as an act against the nation – and hence should not be in the statutes anymore. For, while the British wanted to preserve themselves from the native and throttle freedom impulse, State in independent India needs no such wall with its own citizens. This argument is partly demolished by exceptions in the sedition law itself, which provide full freedoms to even change the government of the day by lawful means. But this is like missing woods for the trees.
The JNU protest was not against the State per se. The poster at the campus that invited participants to the protest asked them to join “against the judicial killing of Afzal Guru and Maqbool Bhat…and in solidarity with the struggle of Kashmiri people for their democratic right of self-determination…with a photo exhibition on the history of occupation of Kashmir and the people’s struggle against it." In that context, it was not even against the present political dispensation led by the BJP and Narendra Modi. Guru was a convict of Pakistan launched parliament terror attack and given the death penalty by the highest court of the land during previous Congress regime. The participants did not seek to change the government which is their legitimate constitutional right. As is proved by the forensically verified video footage attested by police in court, they wanted to break the nation – Bharat Tere Tukde Honge – and challenge the very idea of India’s nationhood in the context of Kashmir.
I was covering the JNU protests from the campus and attended the daily lectures at the sit-ins outside the vice-chancellor office led by left dominated intelligentsia. One theme that emerged from those lectures was that the idea of nation itself was open to question. According to these red-pundits, nation-making was a daily exercise, in which what India looked like in the present was not the India that existed in the past. As a corollary, India could take a different shape in the future, thus suggesting Kashmir need not be a permanent territory of the nation.
It was 2016 and still an early period of the Modi government. I tried to make a sense of what was going on in a piece here that put JNU events as a turf war between Nehruvian narrative and a Narendra Modi led counter-narrative. But leave aside the right-wing idea of India as an ancient cultural motherland for its people, which has existed through millennia as separate from the political State, how many of those sympathising with the likes of Kanhaiya Kumar and Umar Khalid would agree with this definition of nationhood where Kashmir can be lost? While Mehbooba Mufti sees red in the timing of the JNU charge sheet, hinting at the impending general election, let me provoke further and say why not make it one the key debates with possible stump speeches between leaders in the 2019 campaign?