When Smriti Irani first became Minister of Human Resource Development, I was happy for her. I did not believe that not having a background in the field of education was a disqualification. I also liked the fact that she was spunky and contrarian. I thought it was important to give her a chance And that’s why I was especially disappointed with her speech in Parliament the other day.
There are many things I can forgive, including a fake Yale degree. But I can’t understand how 6 patriotic Indians and an entire university are branded as anti-national by the state, backed not by facts, but manufactured reality. After all, this is not reel life, but real life that is at stake.
And it’s not just about that moment when Smriti Irani famously told us that no doctor was allowed near “the child” till 6:30 am the following morning. Fiction, which was immediately contradicted by the Hyderabad university doctor. But what preceded and followed it was far worse.
22 substantive questions that remain unanswered at the end of our education minister’s hour-long speech:
1. Yes, the VC was appointed by the UPA, but he finally acted on repeated documented insistence from Smriti’s Irani’s ministry, in which Rohith was earmarked as an “anti-national”. In his case, this was only for a campaign against the abolition of the death penalty. As a result, he lost both his student stipend and the roof over his head. In my county when did it become okay for a ministry to label you “anti-national and hound you to death for fighting the death penalty? And you say that someone else made him a tool and you had nothing to do it?
2. There were two separate letters lying on Smriti Irani’s case – one Congress leader V Hanumantha Rao warning of the targeting of Dalit students on the campus. The second one from Union Minister Bandaru Dattatreya that named Rohith as an “anti-national” for his role as a Dalit activitist. You used Bandaru Dattatreya’s letter to commit just the crime that Hanumantha Rao was trying to prevent. Then you use Hanumantha Rao’s letter to justify your crime. How?
3. Also it not a question of who appointed the Vice Chancellor, the fact is that it was brought to your attention that Dalit students were being targeted on that campus. Did you do anything about it? Why did you drive another Dalit student to commit suicide?
4. And after this you tell us that you did not go wrong. All this, at the same time, when police go and pick up Rohith’s mother as she stands on a candlelight vigil for her son. Can a mother not stand in peaceful protest any more?
5. And the time to make phone calls was not after Rohith died, but before he died. What did you do to prevent the child’s suicide?
6. His suicide note does not blame anyone, but it does say that he was reduced to his identity. How did you push circumstances forward by your inaction or selective punitive action?
7. Next, you moved on to some good old fashioned “Rahul Gandhi” bashing. There I’m not going to make comments either way. You are free to use this child’s death to score a few political brownie points. That’s what politicians do anyway!
8. After that, you move on to the issue of JNU and proceed to brandish a permission slip from JNU that allowed that allowed Umar Khalid to conduct a poetry evening. And yes, it was to be a poetry evening called “The Country Without a Post Office”, drawing on the work of Kashmiri poet Agha Shahid Ali. The event was also to use poetry to protest against the “judicial killing” of Afzal Guru and stood by the right of self-determination of the Kashmiri people. So since you were brandishing the permission slip, I want to know why was the permission withdrawn on the morning of the event?
9. Agha Shahid Ali is an internationally renowned poet. The University of Utah Press event awards the Agha Shahid Ali Poetry Prize annually. Most importantly, his work is not even banned in India. Then why shouldn’t it be discussed in educational institutions like JNU?
10. If there are those who disagree with the verdict in the Afzal Guru case or the Yakub Memon, isn’t the university the best place to discuss it?
11. If Nehru was committed to the right of self-determination of the Kashmiri people till the day he died, is it wrong if others still believe in it too? Is it wrong to engage with such people and give them a space for their voice to be heard?
12. Isn’t it a good thing that young Kashmiri students today make poetry and not war? Can an event not be both political and cultural?
13. But the event was banned, and what followed was a protest by the students. During this event anti-India slogans were raised. By your own admission, Umar and Anirban just stood there. Then, why are both of them charged with sedition?
14. Kanhaiya Kumar was not even at the event. He came later and he was not even an event organizer. Then why is he being charged with sedition?
15. By your own admission, there were a few people present there with their faces hidden with cloth. What has been done to find these individuals?
16. Instead, aren’t these three boys being hounded for their political beliefs, just in the same way that you did with Rohith Vemula?
17. Now on the appointment of the VC, it is true that the president appointed him, but only from the four nominees sent by your government. He may not be your preferred nominee, but isn’t he still your nominee? And was there not the feeling that he was ill equipped for this role because he had previously headed an engineering institute and JNU is hardly an institute of engineers?
18. And was this VC able to stand up to the central government? If yes, why was the police allowed inside the campus, for the first time since the emergency, to search dormitories and whisk away Kanhaiya, who was not even an organizer of the event? Most importantly, how did they suspend their students without even speaking to them first? Does that happen anywhere in the world?
19. In all of this, the only charge that you make Kanhaiya is that his name was on a poster “Condemning the hanging of Afzal Guru” Is that a sufficient reason for the charge of sedition?
20. On the celebration of Mahishasur Martyrdom Day, is the honorable minister aware that there are many contrary religious narratives in the Indian tradition, and Hinduism usually has had space for all of them. One of them is the belief Mahishasur. There are tribals in Jharkhand who worship Mahishasur and see him as martyr for all the reasons that the education minister mentioned, are we to say that there is no place for adivasi beliefs in India? Can she just dismiss it as “depraved mentality”? Or should institutions like JNU contribute to the preservation of adivasi traditions? I’d like to extend this debate a little further. The book/film “Da Vinci Code” code is based on the premise that Jesus slept with a prostitute and they had a child together. But that contrary narrative was allowed to exist and even become a bestseller. Distasteful to some yes, but is it conceivable that this can be used to dump a charge of being anti-national or seditious on someone in the US? And this is even though the US is a conservative Christian country. But then, isn’t religious identity not to be confused with national identity?
21. The minister is appalled that instances like the anti-sikh riots were included in school curriculums. First of all, if the previous government included their own genocide in government text books, I would like to congratulate them. If we can discuss World II, can we not discuss the anti-Sikhs? Both happened. But don’t we discuss these terrible moments in history to ensure that they never happen again?
22. Finally, the minster ends by quoting Cicero out of context. That speech is in connection with the events of his time, and should be seen that way. Cicero also once famously said, “Politicians are not born; they are excreted.” But more importantly, he also said, “Freedom suppressed and again regained bites with keener fangs than freedom never endangered.”
And after all this does madam Smriti Irani think that she’s being targeted because she’s a “woman”? Madam Irani, you are being targeted for a speech that had lots of cunning, but little conscience. To quote Cicero, who you enjoy, “Orators are most vehement when their cause is weak.”