JNU Row: Freedom of Speech Not Absolute, Limit Set By Common Sense

No one, at JNU or anywhere else, is entitled to bite the hand that feeds it.

4 min read
Students of various organisations wave tricolours at Parliament Street during their march from Mandi House to Jantar Mantar demanding the release of JNUSU Kanhaiya Kumar and the dropping of sedition charges against him, in New Delhi on Thursday. (Photo: PTI)

(Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are the blogger’s and do not necessarily represent those of The Quint.)

Go to Pakistan. We’ll gangrape you. Throw acid on you. Kill your family. I’m allowed to say that right? Women and Dalits should know their place. Muslims are terrorists. Not that either? But, freedom of speech man!! Or do I need to have a well-defined ideology, say Maoism, to spout opinions that are damaging to the social fabric and serve absolutely no constructive purpose whatsoever? In case it wasn’t clear, the question was extremely rhetorical.

The Right to Freedom of Speech has a limit. One decided by simple common sense. For example, the right to freedom of expression cannot permit unlawful assault on officers of the court as a means to express one’s feelings or opinions. Free speech exists to ensure that constructive ideas and criticism that might not merge with the mainstream opinion are heard. Let’s use that as our litmus: constructive. The moment we say that, we see that the protests at JNU fail this litmus test SPECTACULARLY. ‘Bharat teri barbaadi tak jung...’ what exactly is the point of this statement? Replace ‘Bharat teri’ with ‘Dalito ki’ or ‘Musalmano ki’ or ‘Hinduo ki’ and then tell me that it’s an acceptable statement under freedom of speech. Oh and if you believe that it is, you need to start a petition in support of Kamlesh Tiwari.


Clearly, the behavior of students at JNU is not acceptable. But others do worse you say? Yeah, but they make no pretense at neutrality. Or intelligence. This entire country knows that politicians and media will say pretty much anything to swing opinion. But we hold our educational institutions to a higher standard. And JNU purports to be an intellectual bastion that shapes stalwarts in the social sciences. And so it must set the bar for the rest. Should the state have gotten involved? Definitely not. Did it need to? I’d say the jury is out on that one. The facts are that certain sections of the JNU student body repeatedly crossed the line of simple decency: celebrating the deaths of jawans in Dantewada, calling for India to get the death of a thousand cuts and for its shattering into a thousand pieces. While we have the right, no, the duty to oppose the government in matters we disagree on – opposing the idea of the nation is a different ballgame. In fact, if you oppose the idea of the republic of India, you are, by definition, anti-national. This anti-national debate has seen the overuse of a certain serious term: sedition. I’m going to use an even more serious one: treason.

Treason: Any attempt to overthrow the government or impair the well-being of a state to which one owes allegiance. If you want to argue in favour of treason, I have nothing to say to you and you can jump to the last paragraph about our taxes. But if you don’t, I assume you also recognise that providing material aid to someone committing treason is also not acceptable. What about moral aid? Or incitement? Say you see a terrorist planting a bomb, but he’s connecting the wires incorrectly. Are you abetting treason by doing so? What if he seems conflicted and you give him words of encouragement? I’m hoping the point here isn’t too subtle – abetting treason cannot be the purpose of free speech. Am I being facetious? Absurd? Abetting a crime by creating a harmful environment isn’t a real thing? Is anyone going to go and say that to Rohit Vemula’s friends and family?

Students take part in a candle light march to protest against Dalit scholar Rohith Vemula’s suicide and in support of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), students at Gateway of India in Mumbai on Wednesday. (Photo: PTI)
Students take part in a candle light march to protest against Dalit scholar Rohith Vemula’s suicide and in support of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), students at Gateway of India in Mumbai on Wednesday. (Photo: PTI)

Enough of the philosophy. What do we do? What should JNU have done? Well, it should’ve taken responsibility. When students cross certain boundaries, they should be checked. Given a slap on the wrist. Have their privileges suspended. Stipends withdrawn, accommodation revoked. JNU is partly responsible for the government stepping in since it failed to police its own.

Speaking of privileges, subsidies and stipends – NONE of us are paying to support treason or incite unrest. No one, at JNU or anywhere else, is entitled to bite the hand that feeds it. Yeah sure, the government has its reasons, its own mandate for providing funds – but is that justification enough to take what you see as blood money? We say that the protests are in keeping with the finest traditions of Satyagraha in India. But I can’t imagine Gandhi or Sardar Patel living off Britain’s charity. So if these ‘scholars’ are truly against the state, they need to stop co-operating with it. Find an alumnus, a patron, someone who will fund your struggle against the tyrants instead of mooching from the very same tyrants. Oh and I bet someone is itching to point out that the funding of public institutions isn’t charity, it’s an investment. Well, in that case let’s cut our losses on this one. Pull down this relic and build a better one.

(Harshad Rane is a manufacturing engineer and teacher who writes occasionally and fantasises about writing continuously.)

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