Speech Police

02.22.16 5:00 AM ET

India’s Extremists Turn on Left-Wing College Kids

Two students at ‘India’s Berkeley’ are the latest victims of Hindu extremism and its witch hunts.

Change is inevitable. Change is constant. The world is changing, and so is India. But ever since The Donald Trump of India, aka Narendra Modi, and his militant right-wing Hindutva Party came to power, India is fast becoming a nightmare for its women and minorities, its Dalits and Harijans, its LGBT community, and yes, all lovers of good medium-rare steaks and juicy burgers.

There are scholars who will argue that the self-proclaimed “benign land of gentle chants and a thousand ‘Namaste’” has always been excessively hostile and extremely violent to the non-conforming.  History shows that India’s ruling elite more or less eradicated its Buddhist population (Indian folk lore often claims that they merely tricked the Buddhists into converting). Nonetheless, the division of the former Indus Valley Civilization, the formation of modern India, was on a pledge of plurality and on secular values. The Indian National Flag is tricolored, emphasizing its inclusiveness of all peoples and faiths. Therefore the accelerated return to the unbearable intolerance of alternative views and liberal values is disturbing.

For Kanhaiya Kumar, the student body president at Jawaharlal Nehru University, February 9, 2016 started perhaps like any other. But later that day he made a fatal mistake, in a speech at a protest rally at JNU—India’s Berkeley—wherein he criticized Modi and the Hindutva party, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). Three days after his speech, Kanhaiya was arrested on charges of sedition. While being escorted by the police to the court, he was attacked and beaten up twice, according to Indian media—initially by a mob of lawyers, and then again a second time by a ‘man in dark glasses’ when he was being kept in a room at the court before the hearing. Later, Kumar was refused bail.

Supporters of Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) walk in front of a banner featuring Kanhaiya Kumar, a Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) student union leader accused of sedition, during a protest demanding the release of Kumar in Kolkata, India, February 21, 2016. REUTERS/Rupak De Chowdhuri - RTX27VXG

Rupak De Chowdhuri/Reuters

Supporters of Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) walk in front of a banner featuring Kanhaiya Kumar.

I understand that some might wonder how a person, under the watchful eye of the media and heavy police escort, can get beaten up on court premises. Well, please keep in mind that this is India; strange things always occur at Indian courts. On Dec 6, 1992, the Hindutva thugs demolished the Babri Mosque in the town of Ayodhya, on grounds that it stood on the exact spot where an Indian God, Ram, was born. The Supreme Court, while acknowledging the lack of evidence that the mosque stood on the spot where Ram was born—and while also acknowledging that there were multiple other locations in the town of Ayodhya with superior claims, let alone multiple other towns in India that had better claims as Ram’s birthplace than Ayodhya—still ruled in favor of the Hindutva position. Given the state of Indian courts, the two back-to-back beatings that Kanhaiya received is just par for the course. To an outsider this might appear bizarre, but to people in India, this is simply expected.

For the Indian people, everything relating to the JNU crackdown against free speech has proceeded according to a known and predictable script. No one in India was surprised when it became known that the police apparently had zero evidence against Kanhaiya. Saner minds, media personalities, and scholars have all made attempts to remind the Modi government that universities are a safe space to debate and discuss. The student should be free to debate anything. Needless to say, all the efforts to make sense fell on deaf ears. Then suddenly, as if on cue, during police interrogation, Kanhaiya Kumar offers up a Muslim name: he points to Umar Khalid, a PhD student at JNU, as the main organizer of the protest rally. So now Kanhaiya is expected to be let go and the spotlight has shifted to Umar Khalid.

In India, no matter where things start, no matter how things may appear at the beginning, in the end, it is a minority who is sacrificed. Because nothing else pleases or pacifies the Hindutva movement.

Mysterious sources are now claiming that Umar Khalid is a fanatical fundamentalist Muslim, a terrorism sympathizer, a Kashmiri, and a visitor to Pakistan.  Every effort is now being made to rob Umar Khalid of public sympathy and to try and condemn him in the media. They say that in a fascist country that oppresses its women & minorities, and suppresses freedom of speech, the first casualty is the truth. In India today, truth does not matter— hence it does not matter that Umar Khalid is not from Kashmir, he is from Amravati (Maharashtra) and settled in Delhi. Umar Khalid is not an Islamist, he is a communist and a self-proclaimed Bill Maher-type atheist. Umar Khalid has not travelled to Pakistan, he does not even have a passport. The truth is Umar Khalid is just another scapegoat.

Whereas in the days of Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister, free speech and liberal values were the rage, today to be Indian or Hindu means adhering to a very narrow and bigoted interpretation of identity. The Hindutva movement of Prime Minister Modi has obliterated the nuanced differences that co-existed in Indian society and has imposed its own racist, fascist agenda.

Apologists for Modi are saying that the ruling party is forced to dance to the Hindutva Ideology’s tune because five Indian states are up for grabs in 2016. Given that the Indian rupee and economy are sinking, and Indian banks have a higher bad debt ratio than Chinese banks, Modi’s only chance of winning in these five states is by playing the race card. As if Modi’s political convenience is reason enough to put lives in danger, suppress freedom, and burn down the Indian democracy.

But then again, Modi has done this before—he was once banned from entering the United States for his role in the 2002 Gujarat pogrom against Muslims.  For the present, the bigoted fascists in India march on, and they will ride Umar Khalid to electoral victory. A journalist friend of Umar Khalid has even been arrested. Why? Because in India freedom is dispensable, and minorities are born to be crushed.