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Full circle injustice


Wall painting in Jawaharlal Nehru University, based on Picasso's Guernica mural.

There's a reign of terror in many parts of India, Mari Marcel Thekaekara writes.

We lived through some turbulent times in my student days, during the late sixties and early seventies. The first elected communist government in West Bengal gave birth to the Naxalites, a splinter group of ultra-radical Marxists. Being branded Naxalite then, as now, gave the police then and para military forces now, the freedom to shoot a 'suspected' Naxalite in the back. It was called an encounter-killing.

People who lived through those times remember it with great sadness. Thousands of young Bengali students were killed in the attempt to crush Naxalism. It touched us because it was not something happening far away in the jungles of central India. Murder and mayhem were a regular occurrence in our lanes and by-lanes. There were pitched battles between students and the police. Bombs, guns, knives and explosions were commonplace. While I sympathized with the movement for justice, I could not condone the brainless violence. Ordinary constables were stabbed to death on an almost daily basis. The Calcutta government which had nurtured the Naxalite movement in the first place now decided it was out of control and swooped down with all the might of the state. To call it a heavy hand is to be euphemistic. Police mowed down the rebellious youth of West Bengal mercilessly. Predictably. Nowhere in the world can you kill a policeman with impunity.

Yet anyone remotely interested in justice, sympathized with the cause. And the Bengali middle classes were the intelligentsia of India. Well-read and articulate, they took pride in being informed beyond mere crass commerce and profiteering. Everyone knew that the students had been inspired to fight the rampant corruption and injustice heaped on our desperately impoverished peasantry by talk of revolution, both the Russian and Chinese variety.

While students didn’t really like to think of bloodshed and violence, many were brainwashed into participating in both. They were anti-establishment. Slogans were predictable. Down with the government. Down with the bourgeoisie. Iconoclasts had a field day. Everyone was a filthy neo-colonial, exploitative bastard, from Gandhi to Tagore to almost every hero the country ever had.

We've come full circle. Anyone branded a terrorist or Naxalite can be spirited away, no questions asked. There's a reign of terror in many parts of the country. Poor adivasis are caught in the cross fire between hooligans who call themselves Naxalites and the para military forces. Both groups often rape, torture and murder them with impunity. In the fight against terror, innocent Muslim boys are rounded up and imprisoned in the anti-terrorist operations.

Last week, a student leader Kanhaiya Kumar, was arrested and charged with sedition in Delhi's prestigious Jawaharlal Nehru University. The university has always been the epicentre of student politics and protest. Experts have written that to voice dissent is not sedition. At any rate, our sedition law is a relic of our colonial past enacted to jail freedom fighters during the battle for independence. It’s ironic that we should continue with this archaic law when Gandhi and Nehru urged us to revolt against it.

To make matters worse, students, teachers and journalists were viciously attacked and beaten up in the court complex and inside the court. The police refused to intervene while a mob rushed at them. More than 800 journalists have written to the Chief Justice of India, complaining of gross violation of their fundamental rights to report on court proceedings without fear of being beaten up.

While the sedition charges were dropped, the country awaits the Supreme Court verdict. There have been myriad articles, analyzing the pros and cons of the case. Can students shout anti-government slogans? Apparently that’s not sedition eminent lawyers tell us. False evidence, doctored video footage has been put up to incriminate the students, say news reports. It’s a shame that we as a country appear to be regressing on the human rights front, even while the government talks about a galloping economy.

Sadly, some things never change.

The silver lining is that it’s good to see students protesting seriously against injustice again. Hope springs eternal.

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