Sunday, October 5, 2008

When a remarkable republic turns into a majoritarian State

The Telegraph, October 2 , 2008

- When a remarkable republic turns into a majoritarian State

by Mukul Kesavan

I teach in Jamia Millia Islamia, a university in Delhi that was recently in the news because two
young men said to be terrorists were killed in its vicinity, in the course of an ‘encounter’ or
shoot-out with the police. One of these men was a student of the university. Subsequently, the
police made more arrests in connection with the recent bomb blasts in Delhi and two of those
arrested were enrolled in Jamia.

The university authorities made it clear that they would deal strictly with any student found to
be involved in terrorism. The university also declared that it would provide legal aid to the
arrested students (a) because they were members of Jamia in good standing, and (b) till such time as their guilt was proved they were entitled to due process.

The response to this declaration was at once odd and unsurprising. Various spokespersons for the Bharatiya Janata Party demanded that the vice-chancellor be sacked for using the public purse (Jamia is a UGC-funded Central university) for succouring terrorists. The vice-chancellor of a university in Jodhpur, in the course of a speech inaugurating a seminar on “Indian Women: Changes and Challenges”, found the time to regret that Jamia’s ‘kulapati’ was supporting terrorists.

I think these reactions aren’t just odd, they’re contrary to every intuition Indians have about
their republic and about civil society. We’re a constitutional republic, a nation of laws. Ravi
Shankar Prasad, the spokesman of the BJP, almost certainly knows that Article 39A of our
Constitution sets out the principle of legal aid. It does so because the presumption of innocence
and the right to a free trial become meaningful only if the accused has proper legal
representation. Once we allow that public money can, indeed must, be spent to ensure that people have legal representation, it becomes hard to find a charitable explanation for the BJP’s


I have a son who, in less than two years, will go to university. If, god forbid, he finds himself
in police remand for whatever reason (murder, armed robbery, menacing the faculty, fraud), I’d
want his university to behave as if it were acting in my place, in loco parentis. I would expect
the proctor of the university to liaise with the station house officer to make sure that such
rights of visitation as he might have in that ghastly circumstance were given him, to hire a
lawyer to see if he could be released on bail, and if the nature of the alleged offence didn’t
allow that, to try to have him transferred to judicial custody. Police remand is a dreadful form
of imprisonment in India; unlike judicial custody where the procedural restraints of prison
manuals apply, the police in their station-house lockups have a free hand in working suspects
over. Any university that washes its hands of its students the moment they are arrested by the
police because it doesn’t want to be associated with notoriety or (as in this case) the taint of
terrorism is a cringing and wretched institution undeserving of a citizen’s respect or a parent’s

Interestingly, Jamia has supplied legal aid to arrested students before. Some years ago, dozens
of its students were arrested on charges that were later shown to be unfounded. But their
innocence isn’t relevant: the point is that no one thought, at that time, to object to the
university’s aid. The reason for the difference isn’t hard to find. The previous incident
involved a skirmish on the campus; this time round, the students were suspected of collusion in
terror. But it wasn’t just the gravity of the offence that made the difference; the narrative
that the BJP hoped to exploit was that of jihadi terrorism and the two useful facts they were
rubbing together like flints were (i) that these students were Muslims, and (ii) that Jamia
Millia Islamia is a remarkably Muslim-sounding name. “Muslim university bats for Muslim
terrorists”: for a party whose reason for being is the demonization of minorities, specifically
Muslims, this was a script made in heaven.

So some background is in order. Jamia Millia Islamia began life as a nationalist college. It was
born of the non-cooperation movement, the first anti-colonial mass agitation led by Mahatma
Gandhi. A group of young radical students and alumni of the Aligarh Muslim University,
dissatisfied with their alma mater’s compradore politics, decided to establish a nationalist,
anti-colonial alternative to AMU. Gandhi, Maulana Mohammad Ali, Zakir Hussain, Hakim Ajmal Khan, M.A. Ansari are only some of the great names who nurtured Jamia. It’s not just ironical, it’s grotesque that the BJP, born of parent organizations like the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the Hindu Mahasabha, which were notable for their distance from the great anti-colonial struggles that won India freedom, should make a bid to impugn Jamia’s commitment to India’s integrity.

But history aside, it’s worth reflecting on the way in which we respond to news related to
terrorist atrocity. In the Jamia encounter, a policeman and two terror suspects were killed.
Years of staged shootouts have induced a reflexive scepticism about police encounters. In this
case, a policeman was killed which seemed to suggest that someone was shooting back. However, given the police’s fraught relations with Muslim neighbourhoods, this fact cut very little ice
with residents of Jamia Nagar. But even if we allow that on the face of it the police had reason
to raid the premises in which these two young men were killed, the complete lack of concern in
the majority of news reports that two young men had been summarily killed (Atif was in his early twenties and Sajid was all of seventeen) was dismaying.

In the summer of 2005, the British police killed Jean Charles de Menezes, a Brazilian with a
brown skin, because they were convinced he was a terrorist. He wasn’t; it was a dreadful mistake and though it was made in good faith, three years later, the inquest into the incident now threatens the career of Britain’s top policeman, Ian Blair. It’s at least possible that the Delhi
Police, likewise, got it wrong, that Atif or Sajid or both were innocent, that they were caught
in the wrong place at the wrong time, but nearly every newspaper I read baldly reported the death of two terrorists without any caveats or qualifications.

The synchronized bombings that have ravaged Indian cities over the past year have led the police, unsurprisingly, to look for Muslim villains. It has led political commentators from the Hindutva right to make interesting distinctions. One worthy tried to distinguish Muslim terrorists from Hindu rioters and pogrom artists. A rioter, he argued, could, a few years after the riot, settle down into society again as a solid citizen. A terrorist, on the other hand, was implacably committed to the subversion of the State. I can see what he means: Gujarat is full of solid citizens who looted and killed recreationally a few years ago and now led respectable lives
unmolested by the police.

But given the fact that the most recent explosions in Modasa (Gujarat) and Malegaon (Maharashtra) occurred in Muslim localities and had mainly Muslims casualties, the police might try to diversify their enquiries. It was only two years ago that two members of a Hindu militia blew themselves up in Nanded while making a powerful bomb. When people, policemen and political parties buy into the narrative of a priori Muslim guilt, they run the risk of turning this
remarkable republic into an ordinary, ugly, majoritarian State.

1 comment:

Indu said...

It is really a matter of great concern for us that these kinds of activities are growing day by day under the system. It is a result of long term planning which is clearly reflected in the recent events, e.g. the bombs found in the BJP states in a very regular manner point towards some fishy and in-buit design of vested interests.
If not stopped this will lead to more Godhras and more Kandhamals in our country and in history these will be recorded as blots on our nation.