What a situation we have in the country today! A week ago I was in Mumbai on a short trip, ruminating on how the city looked a bit sadder than it had when I saw it a year ago. Then the fire happened at Girgaum Chowpatty during a Make in India related cultural programme and from loud cheers that there were no casualties, there were all those terrible fears confirmed about short cuts and inefficiencies. The pollution came back from the Deonar burning ground or atmospheric inversion or just one more curse of an industrialised life and I sniffled my way out of my favourite city.
As it turned out, Mumbai’s problems weren’t the biggest in the nation. Suddenly, we were faced with much worse. Students were being projected as anti-national, an escalation of what we saw with Rohith Vemula. Any opinion that went against the government at the Centre met an enormous cacophony of jingoism. The armed forces were being used as a measure to decide on which actions and statements were patriotic or not. Journalists and a student in custody were beaten up for doing their duty — by lawyers, no less — even as the police watched. The videos that supposedly proved students at Jawaharlal Nehru University were traitors, turned out to be fake.
You said it: Kashmir University students protest in Srinagar on Tuesday in solidarity with students and staff of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). Pic/PTI
And then, as the nation watched aghast, Haryana was turned into a battleground with a clueless administration calling the army in to stop the protestors who demanded reservations as they burned and destroyed everything. Even as Haryana was on fire, terrorists managed to capture government buildings in Kashmir which led to an over-48 hour battle with security forces. We had death and destruction on the one hand and a ham-fisted attempt to strangle freedom of speech on the other.
Don’t ask me where the prime minister was in all of this, the same prime minister who came to power with big promises of muscular and effective government. I did hear him complain that he was being targeted for having once been a tea-seller and also that there was some sort of a plot by NGOs to destabilise, defame and malign him. Just to make things clear, the prime minister’s party, the BJP, is in power at the Centre, in Haryana and in coalition in Jammu and Kashmir. Tea was not an issue in any of the ongoing struggles.
But students, they were. A BJP MLA counted the number of condoms used by people at JNU. The Delhi police said these students worshipped demons (Mahishasura) and ate meat, clear signs of being seditious anti-nationals. Over-mustachioed retired generals held forth on TV that students were hell-bent on destroying India.
When I was in school in Bombay in the 1970s, this was true. Indira Gandhi did think that students were hell-bent on destroying her version of India. Student leaders like Arun Jaitley felt the brunt of the State’s anger. My schoolteachers snuck in student leaders who were hiding underground because of the Emergency to talk to us about the importance of free speech, of democracy and about fighting authoritarian rule. Jaitley, as some of you may know, is union finance minister in the current government.
If you scratch a little below the surface, then you’re back to the same problem that started last year — of voices that are critical of the government being targeted. Writers, scientists, artists and artistes were all dubbed anti-national last year. This January it was ‘Ambedkarite’ students like Vemula who openly declared that they were against the RSS and the BJP. This month, it is students who debated the execution of terrorist Afzal Guru and some who shouted anti-India slogans. These students threaten the peace of mind of the Government of India so much that the result has been tough and vicious. At the same time, marauding lawyers have proudly flaunted not just their violence against students and journalists but also their affiliation to the BJP.
India has been sharply criticised for these assaults on freedom of speech. Far worse, the world has watched as a state just next to the national capital has been overrun by violence. And India has watched too. We have watched an incompetent government try and stop all criticism of it.
How far are we going to let it succeed?
Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist. You can follow her on twitter @ranjona