Ramjas, Umar Khalid & “Free Speech”

Ramjas College proposed a seminar “Culture of Protest.”

It invited Umar Khalid who had, in 2016, intended to hold a programme on Afzal Guru in JNU. Guru was Kashmiri separatist who was convicted for the 2001 attack on the Parliament of India. Umar Khalid later the same year praised Burhan Wani, the Hizbul Mujahideen commander who was killed by Indian security forces saying, “Burhan wasn’t scared of death, he was scared of a life lived in subjugation. He detested it. He lived a free man, died a free man …..”.

Khalid was to speak on the people of Chattisgarh whom he described as “the most oppressed people in the country”.

Chattisgarh, part of the Red Corridor, is affected by Naxalite-Maoist insurgency and has been described as the epicentre of the conflict. Khalid’s interest in it is therefore not surprising. In April 2010 the Maoists killed 76 CRPF policemen in one of the most vicious attacks on Indian security forces in Dantewada district of the state. In May 2013 they attacked a convoy of the leaders of the Congress in the Sukma district of Chattisgarh killing 27 people including a former central minister, a state minister and the Chattisgarh Congress chief. The problem festers it being said that the long term goal is to establish a Marxist state in India. And Pakistan’s ISI is allying with the Maoists to destabilise India from within.

Notice the convergence of the Khalid’s comments on Burhan with his empathy for the “oppressed people” of Chattisgarh.

One Debraj Mookerjee writing in the Indian Express admitted that Khalid may not have talked about Bastar alone though that was the subject of his Phd work. Mookerjee said there was a possibility of Khalid making “politically contentious” points while speaking of Bastar but Khalid has the right to his views. And “protest” being nothing but the expression of disapproval or dissent is sanctified by the right to free speech.

The unstated major text of this view, however, is that terrorists can be rhapsodised, insurgents  can be glorified, and carnage in and subversion of the country can be celebrated under the honorific title “Culture of Protest” with the aid of “free speech”. In other words the protagonists of this view, like the teachers of Ramjas, believe that it is indeed a laudable exercise for students to “think critically” whether India should remain undivided or should there be a secession at the bidding of separatists or division at the instance of guerrilla armies because the integrity of India is not an incontestable fact and such differences of opinions need to be protected.

If this is the real agenda why then hide insidiously behind seemingly innocent topics of discussion like “Culture of Protest”? Is honesty in discourse less important a value than freedom? Or is speech to be seen only in its contest with violence? The motivation behind claims to free speech must be transparent if the contest of ideas has to be real.

Protest is first induced surreptitiously and then a direct attack is launched at the protest itself on the ground that the protest is unjustified! The chaos which was actually intended is then presented as a misbegotten reaction to something which could not reasonably be anticipated. And with guileful disingenuity the provocateur is eventually presented as the victim.

Let us not fetishise free speech. The unquestioned reverence to speech can only be conceded when it is justified in the context of its critique. Truth may not be fixed but the integrity of India is. And that will not be subject to inquest, review or scrutiny.

The Padma Awards Controversy

Where cronyism becomes the creed only the craven can be celebrated. The annual brouhaha over the Padma awards therefore never ceases to startle me. Such honours are always conferred even where they are not actually deserved. The truly deserving seldom seek awards and, in the distorted scheme of things in which we live, thus become disentitled to receive them. After all it is not honour which is being bestowed but patronage!

Acharya Kriplani had, in 1970, moved a non-official Bill for the abolition of these awards. According to the Bill the decorations were not always according to merit with the Government of the day not the best judge of the merit or eminence of the recipients and what was intended to be for a few exceptionally talented individuals was transformed into a torrent of conferrals.

Quite predictably the Kriplani’s Bill was defeated. The Padmas had to be conferred by politicians on themselves (Indira Gandhi), their teachers (Rajiv Gandhi), their doctors (Vajpayee & Manmohan Singh) or on prospective political allies (MGR and now Sharad Pawar) or those who shout the loudest (Saina Nehwal). Bharat Ratna Tendulkar is busy endorsing products and teams on television while Dhyan Chand (a national icon but of a less favoured sport) lies obscure and anonymous in his grave. Dubious antecedents are no bar to the grant or holding of these awards – being shady or above-board has nothing to do with qualities intrinsic to the individual in question and is only a question of perception. And a favourable perception of those who have to confer awards is all that is required for entitlement!

Interestingly, the Supreme Court of India while rejecting a petition against conferring of awards nevertheless observed that it is necessary to ensure that the “recipient are subjected to feelings of respect rather than suspicion” and that “the number of awards should not be so large as to dilute their value.” The Court “did not say more” because it had entrusted the job to a Committee of “high level functionaries” which was to keep in view the “anxieties” expressed by the Court.

Judgments are not meant to be homilies which is the reason the Court’s exhortation has been treated with utter disdain and contempt.

As the RTI activist Subhash Chandra Aggarwal said “when the Awards Committee choose about 100 names from thousands of nominations in just a few hours over two to three meetings, it seems likely that a pre-decided list is put before the committee for endorsement.” No ennobling exercise this, just a kick in the teeth of the deserving while giving short shrift to the “anxieties” which led the Court to constitute the Committee itself.

It is apparent from the manner in which the Padma awards have been granted that what was meant to be an honour has been reduced to a mere title which is specifically barred by Article 18 of the Constitution of India and the breach of the condition precedent for their retention as declared by the Supreme Court renders the very process of granting these honours void in law.

Considering its process and its selectees I feel the Padma Awards should be re-named Padma’s Wards!