Kanhaiya Kumar May Be Out On Bail, But He’s Definitely Not Free

Court lets Kanhaiya Kumar out on interim bail, puts JNU on trial, and threatens amputation.

The news that Jawaharlal Nehru University Students’ Union president Kanhaiya Kumar had got bail was greeted with cacophony, slogans and good cheer on university campus yesterday. The vice-president of JNUSU, Shehla Rashid, called for a victory march:

Many on social media heaved a sigh of relief. Evidently, none of these people had read the court order. Even though Kumar has been granted bail, there’s not much by way of victory in the court’s decision for either Kumar or his supporters.

As the order notes, this whole episode began with an event held in JNU, titled “Poetry Reading — The Country Without A Post Office”. The court doesn’t note that the title referred to a heartbreakingly beautiful volume of poetry about violence-scarred Kashmir, written by Aga Shahid Ali. Instead, the order begins with an extract from a popular song from a Bollywood film that earned actor Manoj Kumar his epithet of “Mr. Bharat” and attributes it wrongly to the lyricist Indeevar. (The lyrics of “Mere Desh Ki Dharti” were written by Gulshan Bawra, who won a Filmfare award for it in 1968. Indeevar wrote “Gulabi Raat Gulabi” for Upkar.) “This spring why the colour of peace is eluding the prestigious Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) situated in the heart of Delhi needs to be answered by its students, faculty members and those managing the affairs of this national university,” asks the order.

Would it be contempt of court to weep at how pulpy Bollywood has managed to trump lyrical poetry even in haloed courtrooms? Not to mention the convoluted sentence construction and absence of critically-needed commas. Or the sheer insensitivity of quoting a song that talks about bountiful produce when thousands of Indian farmers are driven to suicide due to various reasons including floods, drought, debt, use of genetically modified seed, public health and government economic policies.

However, that’s not all. There’s more in the court order that will leave gobsmacked those who thought it was obvious that the charges of sedition against Kumar were absurd.

“Today I find myself standing at a crossroad,” writes the bench of Justice Pratibha Rani in the order, going on to observe that “it has to be kept in mind by all concerned that they are enjoying this freedom [of speech] only because our borders are guarded by our armed and paramilitary forces.” Much like the assertion that Indeevar wrote “Mere Desh ki Dharti”, this is not strictly true since a nation can have secure borders and no freedom of speech. Just look at China.

The order goes on to say [emphases mine]:

“The reason behind anti-national views in the mind of students who raised slogans on the death anniversary of Afzal Guru, who was convicted for attack on our Parliament, which led to this situation have not only to be found by them but remedial steps are also required to be taken in this regard by those managing the affairs of the JNU so that there is no recurrence of such incident.

The investigation in this case is at nascent stage. The thoughts reflected in the slogans raised by some of the students of JNU who organized and participated in that programme cannot be claimed to be protected fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression. I consider this as a kind of infection from which such students are suffering which needs to be controlled/cured before it becomes an epidemic.

Whenever some infection is spread in a limb, effort is made to cure the same by giving antibiotics orally and if that does not work, by following second line of treatment. Sometimes it may require surgical intervention also. However, if the infection results in infecting the limb to the extent that it becomes gangrene, amputation is the only treatment.”

That the court holds this point of view is deeply alarming. An entire culture of debate and being politically active is being held into account by the court order and it favours one ideology — of uncritical and unquestioning nationalism — over others. Patriotism and nationalism are being forced together in this order, as though supporting the government and its decisions is the same as loving one’s country.

Rather than a single instance of sloganeering, with this court order all of JNU now comes under the ambit of the investigation. Not just that, despite the investigation being at initial stages, the court appears to have decided that the slogans in question don’t come under the umbrella of freedom of speech. This means it’s not a question of whether or not this is a case of sedition as much as who will be found guilty of sedition.

The terms of Kanhaiya Kumar’s interim bail are that he will “not participate actively or passively in any activity which may be termed as anti-national.” He is also expected to “control anti-national activities in campus”, once he’s back in JNU. Finally, a member of the JNU faculty or a family member must “exercise control on the petitioner not only with respect to appearance before the Court but also to ensure that his thoughts and energy are channelized in a constructive manner.”

What this translates to, is that Kanhaiya Kumar may have got out of jail, but he is not free. He must regulate himself to the extent of monitoring even his passive actions, and be regulated right down to his thoughts. He has six months during which his every move will be under scrutiny. This is how he may convince the court that he is not an anti-national.

Keep in mind there is not even the flimsiest evidence that can be held against Kumar. The “evidence” presented in recordings of the events have been proven at best dubious and worst doctored.

However, Kumar is evidently a small piece of the puzzle of this case. As the order makes clear, what is under attack is the culture of debate and political engagement that JNU signifies. What is under attack is the liberal interpretation of freedom of speech.

There is no doubt in the court order that JNU is a breeding ground for anti-nationalism. The solidarity that JNU’s faculty and students have shown with those charged with sedition is being seen as proof positive of this. As a result, that very unity is being attacked from different fronts. The Indian Express reported that “Kanhaiya also distanced himself from Umar Khalid and Anirban Bhattacharya, the two other accused arrested in the case.” Now, Kumar is under instruction from the court to act as an agent of the state and “control” those who may be ‘infected’ by anti-nationalism. This potentially isolates him from the very people who have been his support base.

There’s no clarity as to what the court means when it says “amputation is the only treatment” to the infection of sedition or what “remedial steps” are expected of JNU as a whole. However, the sense of a threat is palpable. After all, two more JNU students are in custody and Kumar’s Get Out Of Jail card expires in six months.

This article was republished from Newslaundry.com.

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