In the new globalised world, it was inevitable that the freedom of speech on campus debate, which is sweeping across university campuses in the US and Europe, would be echoed in India.
On February 12, a motley group of 20 students of the Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) gathered in the university circle to protest an invitation to Asaduddin Owaisi, Lok Sabha MP from Hyderabad and the president of the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen, a minority rights political party. The protest was prompted by an announcement of the AMU Students Union (AMUSU) that it had invited several political parties to demand that all of them nominate Muslim candidates to give the community representation commensurate with the population of India’s largest minority community (172 million).
An hour into the protest, the district head of the Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha (BJYM), the BJP’s youth wing, filed a first information report (FIR) against 14 university students and “other gathered AMU students” under several sections of the Indian Penal Code including sedition (s.124-A), robbery (392), rioting (147), attempt to murder (307) and promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion, race, place of birth, residence, language (153-A).
The artillery of serious criminal charges filed against office-bearers of the AMUSU for exercising their perfectly legitimate constitutional right to invite Owaisi — a former barrister and respected Member of Parliament — to address them on the issue of minority rights, has aroused anxiety in the academy about the extent to which the fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression guaranteed by Article 19 (1) (a) of the Constitution, is being suppressed in Uttar Pradesh — India’s most populous state (215 million) — ruled by the BJP, which after it swept the legislative assembly election in 2017 appointed a militant Hindu priest — Yogi Adityanath — as chief minister of this Hindi heartland state.
Unsurprisingly, issues such as cow protection and building a Ram temple in Ayodhya on the site of the Babri Masjid which was razed to the ground in 1992 by Hindu militants, are at the top of the state government’s agenda. With the encouragement of militant Hindu BJP leaders, vigilante lynch mobs roam the countryside targeting Muslims engaged in their traditional cattle and meat marketing trades. Moreover, with millions of under-educated simpleton youth with weak foundations crowding university campuses, there’s little awareness of constitutional issues and minority rights on college and university campuses of the state.
“The charges filed against student union leaders and the police registering the frivolous FIR is clear misuse of power. We are perfectly entitled under the Constitution of India to invite Mr. Owaisi, a respected MP to address us on the issue of minority rights. The BJYM has no right to object to the invitation,” says Hamza Sufiyan, vice president of AMUSU.
With eight students suspended by the university in the immediate aftermath of the protest incident, even as a three-member fact finding committee is in the process of recording statements, the communal temperature in AMU, founded in 1875 as the Mohammedan Anglo-Oriental College by educationist Sir Sayed Ahmed Khan (1817-1898), is rising. In April 2016, a student clash left one dead and the Union government’s Rapid Action Force had to be called in. In May 2018, a clash between Hindus and Muslims over the removal of a portrait of Muhammed Ali Jinnah from the main hall of the varsity resulted in violent clashes.
With General Election 2019 dates likely to be announced any day, student unions affiliated with the BJP — with tacit support of the state government — are certain to step up their anti-Muslim and minorities rhetoric. India’s most populous state which has the largest representation in the Lok Sabha (85 seats), is certain to experience a long, hot summer.
Puja Awasthi (Lucknow)