Govt using law against students to suppress dissent: Lawyers

Addressing a people’s tribunal on education, lawyers said that the police and criminal laws are being used by ruling establishments against students to discourage any voice of dissent

NH photo by Vikrant Jha
NH photo by Vikrant Jha

Vikrant Jha

A systematic attempt is underway to demonise, vilify and scare any voice of dissent against the ruling establishments, both at the centre as well as states, said various speakers addressing a ‘People’s Tribunal on attack on education institutions in India’. The governments, they said, have fine-tuned the art of using the law and the police against students and teachers to suppress any voice of dissent.

The tribunal, currently being held at the Constitution Club in Delhi (from April 11 to April 13) was addressed by professors and lawyers who spoke on the topic, ‘Crackdown on Dissent and Criminalisation’ on Thursday. The speeches were followed by various testimonies by students and teachers of universities across the country; from Delhi University to Banaras Hindu University, Hyderabad University, Jadhavpur University and Chennai University among others.

The brutal police action on students, for example, during the JNU long march a few weeks ago in March, the speakers said, and the filing of charges such as sedition and rioting is intended to create a ‘chilling effect on a wider community’.

“The purpose (of the brutality and inclusion of charges like sedition) has already been achieved,” said Vrinda Grover, addressing the Jury, which includes Justice (retd) AP Shah, Justice (retd) Hosbet Suresh, Professor Romila Thapar and Professor TK Oommen, among others. Grover, a renowned Supreme Court lawyer explained, “the purpose is to both put fear on a wider community—which is called the chilling effect— and to vilify and demonize. They understand that demonisation does not go away with time. It has already played its role.”

A student and a teacher from Ramjas College of Delhi University testified about how the ABVP—student wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh— ‘held the whole college hostage for two days (February 21 and 22, 2017)’. “What we witnessed was sheer terror. It was a pre-meditated, systematic and organised violence,” said a visibly anguished Professor Mukul. “It was a one-sided attack and a kind I had not witnessed since I started teaching at Ramjas in 1984,” he added.

“It was done to send a message, not just to Ramjas but to universities all over, that henceforth, it would be the ABVP that would call the shots at the universities.”

In February last year, ABVP members demanded exclusion of JNU student Umar Khalid from Delhi University's Ramjas College's seminar titled 'Culture of Protests'. Ramjas students and professors took out a silent march around the campus. A mob attacked the protestors and damaged the college campus and thus began, what Professor Mukul says, the vicious violence against the students and the teachers.

Narrating the aftermath of the February 2017 incident, Abhinash, a student of Ramjas College, said, “It led to polarisation of such an extent that the guards who would have tea with us are turning against us for standing at a place in groups. No one feels safe in the college sphere anymore.”

Referring to the incident, Vrinda Grover said, “the only FIR lodged in the incident was by the Police against the students. The students and teachers’ demand to file an FIR was not fulfilled.”

“And it is not just at Ramjas, but it is happening in BHU where girls fight against sexual exploitation, in JNU, in TISS, at all the places. It is a common pattern everywhere there is a voice of dissent,” she informed the jury.

A student from Jadhavpur University in Kolkata claimed, “the RSS and the Trinamool both try to paint the campuses with their own colour.” Narrating an incident, he said, “BJP MP Roopa Ganguly once sent 10,000 RSS goons to the campus and we were told that if the university does not conform to the RSS ideology of nationalism, the university will be shut down.” When asked by one of the jury members if the ruling Trinamool Congress party was not disrupting in any way, he replied, “for Trinamool, anything not Trinamool is radical and they take action in the same manner as the RSS does.”

However, the Constitution not only allows dissent, but also protects it, said Mihir Desai, a Mumbai-based lawyer. “All protests are justified, legitimate and constitutionally protected,” he said, adding, “and in fact it’s a constitutional duty to generate scientific temper and all these protests are against the removal of scientific temper in the institutions of knowledge.”

But, Desai said, the environment in the country is such that any dissent is labelled ‘anti-national’. “It may have happened on a few occasions here and a few there previously, but since 2014, by-enlarge criminal laws are being used to suppress voices. Charges like sedition, he informed, are used only when it meets two scenarios; against the people who wish to overthrow government and they wish to do it using violent methods. But today, students are facing charges of sedition. The action by police, not only during the protests but also afterwards when they take students in custody, are all illegal. But, Desai exclaims, there is a huge difference between what the law says and what it does.

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