JNU saga has nothing to do with freedom of expression

Youth is the embodiment of passion, turbulence, romanticism, and enlightenment. There is hardly an example of a mass movement, political or otherwise, having succeeded without the active participation of the youth. At the tender age of 18, Khudiram Bose was hanged till death for seeking to liberate his motherland from the clutches of the British rule, making him the youngest patriot to embrace death for his motherland.

The emergence of the youth as a distinct political class is especially conspicuous in newly founded nations. The same is the case with India, where organized student movements have played a major role in our independence struggle. Post independence, India witnessed the genesis of numerous other student bodies with varied political ideologies and affiliations which played a major role in not only shaping the national mood towards policy but also in drawing the attention of the government towards specific student issues such as admission policies, tuition, academic freedom and student welfare at large. However, as opposed to the desired metamorphosis of student unions from an entity playing an active role in national politics to an administrative body whose primary focus is to take care of the general interests of the student body, they continue to be everything but apolitical.

While student politics per se is not undesirable, politicization of student unions in India has resulted in many undesirable consequences. Apart from the above-mentioned phenomenon higher educational institutions in India have been plagued by the ills that characterize politics in the country. Frequent student union clashes, boycott of classes, strikes, roadblocks, manipulation of voters, display of muscle power, disruption of academics and violence have become commonplace during campus elections around the country.

Indian universities have been in news owing to student politics more than their genuine achievements of late… The latest candidates to be in news because of student politics are Hyderabad University and Jawaharlal Nehru University. One would struggle to recall when was the last time JNU was in news owing to its genuine achievements and not because of some campus politics related issue. This time JNU is in news for being the breeding place and safe heaven to those who harbour ‘anti-national’ sentiments and desire this great nation of us to be broken into pieces.

On February 9, ex-members of DSU had called for a cultural meeting of a protest against what they called ‘the judicial killing of Afzal Guru and Maqbool Bhat’ and in solidarity with ‘the struggle of Kashmiri people for their democratic right to self-determination.’ A lot of Kashmiri students from inside and outside the campus were to attend the event. Anti-India slogans, tinged with sectarian fervour, were raised; liberation of provinces from the Union of India was sought. In short, the sovereignty and legitimacy of the Indian state were challenged. When the media reported this sequence of events, the nation suddenly woke up to this ugly reality. The happenings at the JNU has stupefied us to an extent that instead of expressing concern over fast deteriorating situation of Law & Order in Bihar, despite cold-blooded murder of two important leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) on the same day.

So, what is so special about the campus politics of JNU that first-rung leaders of CPI(M), Sitaram Yechuri and D Raja, Congress VP Rahul Gandhi, and Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal had to rejoin student politics, compelling BJP chief Amit Shah also to comment on the matter should be analyzed thoroughly.

In order to understand how exactly the sequence of events at JNU challenged the sovereignty and legitimacy of the Union of India, one first needs to understand the concepts of sovereignty and legitimacy.


Political scientists call internationally recognized states sovereign. Essentially, a sovereign state is legally recognized by the family of states as the sole legitimate governing authority within its territory and as the legal equal of other states. This legal recognition is the minimal standard for external sovereignty, or sovereignty relative to outside powers. Legal external sovereignty, which entails being given the same vote in world affairs as all other states, is vital for sovereignty.

Modern states also strive for internal sovereignty, that is, to be the sole authority within a territory capable of making and enforcing laws and policies. They must defend their internal sovereignty against domestic groups that challenge it, just as they must defend it externally against possible invasion. Internal challenges typically take the form of a declaration of independence from some part of the state’s territory and perhaps even civil war. States rarely are willing to accept such an act of defiance. From the United States in 1861, at the start of the American Civil War, to the former Soviet Republic of Georgia in the 1990s, when the region of South Ossetia tried to break away, most states use all means in their power to preserve their sovereignty over their recognized territories. Even a relatively insignificant challenge will draw the full attention of a state. In Waco, Texas, in 1993, a small religious sect called the Branch Davidians broke various U.S. laws and declared its compound beyond the reach of U.S. authority. Though it was a small and isolated group that most of the country thought was simply “crazy,” its direct rejection of U.S. sovereignty ultimately led to high-level government attention. Attorney General Janet Reno was personally involved in the standoff on a daily basis. Even a superpower will react with full force to the smallest threat to its claim to sovereignty.

As one political philosopher reportedly said in response to students who complained about the government calling in police during a demonstration, “The difference between fascism and democracy is not whether the police are called, but when.”


The ability to enforce sovereignty more fully comes not only from wealth but also from legitimacy and bureaucracy, which are the final two key characteristics of states. All modern states argue at length for a particular normative basis for their legitimacy, and this claim is the basis of the various kinds of regimes in the world today. Weber described three types of legitimate authority: traditional, charismatic, and rational-legal. He argued that rational-legal legitimacy distinguishes modern rule from its predecessors, but he recognized that in practice most legitimate authority is a combination of the three types. Modern states often control an overwhelming amount of coercive power, but the use of such power is expensive and difficult. States cannot maintain effective internal sovereignty in a large, modern society solely through the constant use of force or even its threat. Legitimacy, whatever its basis, enhances sovereignty at much lower cost. If most citizens obey the government because they believe it has a right to rule, then little force will be necessary to maintain order. For this reason, governments proclaim their legitimacy and spend a great deal of effort trying to convince their citizens of it, especially when their legitimacy is brought into serious question.

One doesn’t need any great intellect to comprehend that seeking liberation of its provinces from the Union of India amounts to a call for waging war against the Indian state… Also committing an offence under The Contempt of Courts Act, 1971 by terming the execution of the death sentence awarded to Afzal Guru and Maqbool Bhat on their conviction after a free and fair trial by the Indian courts, by labeling it as “judicial killings” is not akin to the exercise of the freedom of expression. Quoting Voltaire, out of context, when one runs out of arguments to justify what they’re defending, has now become a fashion among the self-proclaimed votaries of free speech! Another matter that consistency in taking a principled stand is no longer seen as a virtue… That sort of explains the plight of a certain Kamlesh Tiwari rotting in the jail as the National Security Act has been slapped on him for merely exercising his freedom of expression which ‘legitimized’ it for a certain community to resort to rioting and put a bounty on his head. One may wonder whether their faith was too weak to be affected by silly uttering of a boy whom nobody knew a couple of months back! But if you ask any of those self-proclaimed votaries of free-speech, they would convince you that Kamlesh asked for it, just like Charlie Hebdo guys asked for their death! JNU is the place where a mere invitation to Baba Ramdev invokes intolerance from those very votaries of free speech in the harshest possible manner!

To conclude, sovereignty of India is the result of countless sacrifices and not something which we can afford to be questioned or challenged, let alone desecrated just because it will give you a chance to quote Voltaire… (Incidentally, it was S. G. Tallentyre, and not Voltaire, to have said “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”.) Legitimacy of the Indian state stems from the constitution we gave to ourselves. Anyone who tries to challenge either of them shall be dealt with as law of the land prescribes. When you opt for partisanship over principles, you lose the right to speak…