Cavalier invocation of sedition law

The arrest of kanhaiya kumar, president of the students union of the admittedly leftist Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), on the charge of sedition by the Central government-controlled Delhi police, provided another instance of the BJP-led NDA government’s clampdown on fundamental rights to freedom of speech and expression, under the cover of nationalism. Kumar is accused of raising ‘anti-national’ slogans at a protest rally in JNU to mark the third anniversary of the execution of Kashmiri terrorist Afzal Guru, who was sentenced to death by the Supreme Court after an exhaustive set of trials and appeals in 2005. Further, after gangs of ‘nationalist’ lawyers ran amok at Delhi’s Patiala House court on February 17 beating up Kumar, journalists, and JNU faculty and students, the BJP government in charge of law and order in the national capital, has yet to arrest any of their leaders, clearly identified by the print and television media.

It isn’t difficult to discern the strategy of the BJP and its ideological parent the Hindu hard core Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), to make its student wing, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) a force to reckon with on Indian campuses, especially of the 46 top-ranked centrally-funded universities. Over the past 20 months since the BJP led by Narendra Modi took charge at the Centre, the ABVP has made a concerted bid to assert itself on university campuses countrywide, hitherto dominated by Left and/or pro-Congress student unions.

For instance, ABVP leaders played a key role in events leading to the tragic suicide of Rohith Vemula, a Dalit student of the Central government-funded University of Hyderabad. Vemula was suspended from the varsity following an on-campus brawl with ABVP office-bearers after which they petitioned the Union HRD ministry, which directed the vice chancellor to take action, resulting in Vemula’s suspension and subsequent suicide. Similarly in other cases, the HRD ministry was quick to act on ABVP complaints.

In the JNU imbroglio, the government should have left it to the university administration and vice chancellor to take action against students raising alleged ‘anti-national’ slogans. The Supreme Court has repeatedly held that raising slogans and making speeches which don’t provoke violence don’t attract the provisions of s. 124 of the Indian Penal Code which defines sedition, a grave criminal offence. But the BJP government’s cavalier invocation of s.124 of the IPC against students on college campuses reveals its intent to tightly regulate the higher education system and supress freedom of speech and expression, which is an inherent part and parcel of academic life.

It’s not too late for the BJP to acknowledge that social, cultural and intellectual freedom in the country’s 37,000 colleges and 835 universities is a rite of passage for youth. An autonomous, inclusive and progressive higher education system which produces free-thinking graduates with discursive and debating skills is the prerequisite of national progress.

Devolve power for clean india

With the stock market in the doldrums, public sector banks flooded with bad debts, farm suicides continuing unabated countrywide and the Budget session of Parliament headed for acrimony, if not another washout, on the eve of its second anniversary in power at the Centre, the BJP-led NDA government headed by prime minister Narendra Modi, has fallen back on one of its first initiatives after it was sworn in two years ago: the Swacch Bharat (‘Clean India’) Mission. Right now even as finance minister Arun Jaitley is adding final touches to Union Budget 2016-17 which, he says, will focus on rural development, television channels are awash with government ad campaigns to achieve a clean India before 2020. Significantly, the campaign shifts the onus of making and keeping India clean upon citizens.

Yet the plain truth is that there’s only so much the people can do to keep their environs free of garbage and pollution. A coordinated waste collection, separation and disposal national policy backed by freely available new technologies is required to make our 73 filthy, overcrowded cities with populations of over 1 million, swacch and green again. Mere bluster, pious statements of intent and exhortations to the people are of limited value.

Curiously, there seems little awareness that the basic groundwork for cleansing India’s urban and rural habitats has been completed with passage of the 73rd and 74th Amendments to the Constitution way back in 1992. These amendments provide for the devolution of administrative powers to elected members of village panchayats and municipal governments, down to the ward level as state legislatures may by law prescribe.

But while state legislatures have prescribed laws for the election of village panchayats and municipal corporations, they have devolved few, if any, substantial powers of administration and taxation upon them. Most important, the right to levy property taxes and to retain a substantial proportion of them for local administration has been denied to duly elected gram sabha (village) and ward committees as is normative in developed countries. In advanced countries, elected village/ward committees constituted of property owners in villages/wards levy property taxes and retain up to 50 percent of the amounts collected for local administration, which includes cleaning, greening and maintenance of their local environments.

The rationale of this devolution of taxation and real administrative power is that property owners have a vested interest in maintaining clean, green and efficient local governance, if only to ensure rising property values. Unfortunately this logic seems beyond the ken of MPs and state legislatures dominated by rustics whose prime intent seems to be to level down the country’s urban habitats to the status of the Indian village, described by Dr. Ambedkar as “a sink of localism, a den of ignorance, narrow mindedness and communalism”.