An American and a Russian walked into a bar…

…and began to discuss freedom in their respective countries. “In the US,” said the American, “we are so free, I can walk right up to the steps of the White House and call President Kennedy a fool.”

“So what?,” says the Russian, “we in the USSR are equally free — I can walk right up to the steps of the White House and call President Kennedy a fool, too.”

The tenor of reactions from one side of the political divide to Kanhaiya Kumar’s release on bail reminds me of that joke. There are many examples; I’ll cite just one — which I picked because it contains much of what is being bandied about on social media.

That’s the beauty of, the glory of India… You can come out of jail and badmouth the Prime Minister and rabble rouse hours later and go home for lunch to be garlanded as a crusader.

Not even in America. By now the FBI and Homeland Security would have begun tracking you. Not even United Kingdom where MI5 and 6 and 7 would have opened a file on the guy.

And we dare talk of freedom being in peril?

How many things can you count that are wrong in those 78 words?

#1. That you can “badmouth” — an odd word to use to describe criticism — the PM is not “the glory of India”. The right to criticise, to oppose, to dissent, is merely one of the most basic freedoms that our forefathers fought for and won, along with the right to fly our own flag. In this context, it is worth pointing out that MK Gandhi was arrested and charged with sedition for launching the non-cooperation movement in 1920 — which, among other actions, included the return of titles and honours conferred by the government of the day (that bit sound familiar)?

#2. Interesting that America and the United Kingdom feature in this argument. “Not even” in America or the UK would you arrest someone for sedition, particularly when the supposedly seditious act was committed by some “mouth-covered persons” who the officials chose not to identify. (The UK is particularly interesting because it got rid of this very law, which however we still retain even as we busily change British-era names of roads and buildings and monuments). Nor would you, in either of those countries, arrest someone first and look for a likely reason after.  We, however, did just that this week, to another citizen of India exercising her legitimate right to protest — and that is why we “dare talk” of freedom in peril.

#3. “We dare talk of freedom in peril” not because someone was released on bail but because that someone was arrested in the first place, and charged with a crime for which the authorities have thus far shown nothing but manufactured evidence. That is the precise definition of freedom being in peril.

Can we all stop pretending that the granting of bail was an act of magnanimity on the part of the government of the day? Remember that the court granted bail despite the government’s argument against it. The rest of the piece is a personal rant against Kanhaiya Kumar and his “glorification” — it is worth reading only because it perfectly encapsulates a significant segment of the reaction to his release. (Risibly, among KK’s many

The rest of the piece is a rant against Kanhaiya Kumar and his “glorification”. It is worth reading only because it encapsulates a significant segment of the reaction to his release. (Risibly, among KK’s many demerits is that he has neither invented a cure for cancer nor started an industry that employs many people).

In all this, one thought keeps coming through: that Kanhaiya Kumar doesn’t deserve his “glorification”. And, related, that instead of making that speech, he should have been concentrating on his studies.

To take the latter point first — he can’t concentrate on his studies. The university authorities in their wisdom have suspended him from classes — again, without any evidence that he raised any incendiary slogans, and without giving him a chance to be heard.

Reverting to the “glorification”, flip the question on its head: Did he “deserve” the vilification? The abuse? The premeditated physical violence? The targeting of his family with abuse and threats of violence?

How did all that come about?

Because the student wing of the ruling party chose to expand the scope of a campus event to the outside world, and invited sections of the friendly media to the party. Because said media chose to fake videos to make the case for the prosecution. Because an MP of the ruling party used such manufactured testimony to file an FIR. Because the police, instead of following due process, arrested Kanhaiya Kumar and charged him with sedition (“Do you even know the meaning of sedition?”, the judge who granted bail is forced to ask the police and the prosecution). Because a person known to be close to a government minister chose to relentlessly publicise the fake video, as did the official spokesperson of the ruling party. Because sections of the media, for reasons best known to them, chose to amplify that video, spread its fake footprint far and wide. Because the apologists of this government relentlessly propagated that video on social media. Because the home minister of this country chose to link him with wanted terrorist Hafiz Saeed — first on the basis of a tweet and then, when it was discounted as a fake, on the basis of “intelligence reports” no one has seen before, or since. Because lawyers affiliated to the BJP chose to take the “anti-national” tag as an excuse to beat him up, in full view of the police.

And — let’s not pretend — you did all this in a cynical attempt to deflect attention from another student, another story. A student who was driven to despair — again, by the actions of your student body, your hand-picked vice chancellor and your ministers  working together as a tag-team. A student who told you, in as many words, that he had reached a point so low, suicide seemed the only remaining option — a warning you chose to ignore.

When Rohit Vemula’s eventual suicide cast a nationwide spotlight on your actions, you created a distraction. You chose to dilute all of what had gone before by raising the bogey of universities as hotbeds of anti-national activities. For this, you elected Kanhaiya Kumar as a handy scapegoat.

So if there is “celebration” of his release (on bail, mind — the case continues, the taint remains), it is in context of the enormous injustice that was perpetrated in the first place.

You are discomfited that Kanhaiya Kumar’s speech has captured the national imagination — even as you hail as a prime example of oratory a minister’s speech in Parliament that was long on theatrics, and woefully short on fact?

If you must blame anyone for Kanhaiya’s “national” status, blame the government in power and its many arms and fellow-travelers who elevated a campus radical — no better, no worse, than hundreds of thousands of such that have passed out of our colleges and universities over decades — into an icon for disenfranchised youth.

You — the government in power and its apologists — created Kanhaiya Kumar. So now, live with it. You created a focal point for disaffection and disenchantment — so, deal with it.

And while living with it, consider this: Less than three years ago, this government came to power on a floodtide of pan-India goodwill. If you had managed to build on that goodwill, a university student would not have been able to rattle your cage this easily, he would not capture the imagination in the first place.

In passing, spare a thought to this “statistic” that you quote as part of the argument:

There are over 400,000 people in Indian jails and 68  percent of them are undertrials so really it is a no-brainer.

So that is the mindset? There are lakhs of people suffering anyway, so who gives a fuck for one more?

PostScript: Here you go:

One month ago, who had heard of Kanhaiya Kumar outside of the JNU campus? Who cared? And, attached to those two questions: Who elevated him to a political figure with a resonance outside that campus?

Actions have consequences. Again — live with it.


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