Rajya Sabha discusses JNU, Vemula; Irani's reply cut short

New Delhi: Functioning for nearly the whole day after a long time, the Rajya Sabha on Thursday witnessed an intense debate on the recent incidents in JNU and Dalit scholar Rohith Vemula's suicide, even as HRD Minister Smriti Irani's reply was cut short due to protests which lead to its adjournment for the day.

As the house saw proceedings without any disruptions due to protests, the debate saw several heated-up moments, where the treasury and opposition members engaged in fierce arguments. Taking on the opposition over their criticisms, Irani, the human resource development minister, said she is called the "anpadh mantri" (illiterate minister).

"I do not claim I am as erudite a speaker as (CPI-M general secretary Sitaram) Mr. Yechury. But since people blame me for having a flair for drama, let me quote from 'Macbeth' and say "fair is foul and foul is fair" that is how 'Macbeth' began indicating that nothing is as it seems," she said starting her reply to the short duration discussion.

She even said that she has been cautioned over getting agitated. "I have been cautioned, Smriti don't get agitated," the minister said. Defending the government actions, Irani said it was not the first time police entered the Jawaharlal Nehru University campus.

She also said that she talked to Vemula's mother often, but people don't know about it. However, touching upon the JNU issue, Irani referred to "Mahishasur Martyrdom Day" observed in JNU, when the scene got ugly. As she read out a document on Mahishasur Puja, referring to the demon slain by the goddess Durga, which she said came from JNU, it created a huge uproar among the opposition.

"When they went to JNU they wanted insult of gods and goddesses be within freedom of speech. What was the need for (Congress vice president) Rahul Gandhi to accept such insult of gods," Irani said amid ruckus in the house, leading to its adjournment for the day.

The debate, which was started by Communist Party of India-Marxist's (CPI-M) Yechury, saw opposition parties condemning the police action in the JNU incident, and violence at Patiala House court, as well a the circumstances around the suicide of Vemula, following his suspension from the University of Hyderabad.

Yechury accused the NDA government of attempting to turn India into a Hindu Rashtra and demanded that a house committee probe the issues arising out of the unrest in JNU, Hyderabad University and other institutions. The government's undue "interference which is not sanctioned by the law" in the working of the educational institutions is aimed at promoting their agenda of Hindu Rashtra, he said while initiating a debate on the issue.

"It's an effort to replace secular India with a Hindu nation," he said. Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, meanwhile said the government agreed that there should be freedom in universities, but questioned how can "vandalism" be condemned while "sedition" is called free speech.

"What happened in Patiala House (court) is condemnable. But vandalism is condemnable, and sedition is free speech? Nobody can subscribe to this ideology and least of all should Congress party subscribe to this ideology," Jaitley said, intervening in the debate.

His reference to "vandalism" was to the incidents on February 15 of some students and media persons being roughed up at Patiala House courts complex where Jawaharlal Nehru University Students' Union president Kanhaiya Kumar, arrested for sedition, was being presented before a judge.

"Of course vandalism should be condemned," Jaitley said. "We all know what (executed parliament attack convict) Afzal Guru represented... He was not protesting against 'Manuvaad',' capitalism', or 'Brahmanism' that they will raise slogans against Manuvaad and capitalism on his martyrdom day," the minister said, referring to the event organised on February 9 at the JNU where anti-national slogans were allegedly raised.

BJP's Bhupendra Yadav said that what has been happening in the JNU is not "freedom of expression" but "expression of freedom from India", referring to campus events where students allegedly voiced support for Kashmiri separatists.

"Freedom of expression is there in the constitution. But what happened in JNU, was it freedom of expression or expression of freedom from the country? Was it freedom of speech or speech for freedom?" he asked.

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