A chilling directive to schools, colleges

A chilling directive to schools, colleges

Home Minister Basavaraj Bommai.

Karnataka has always prided itself as a liberal and progressive state, where dissent against the political class has not only been accepted gracefully but also respected. But that is set to change with the state government keen to thwart any dissent under the guise of curbing ‘anti-national’ activities. Home Minister Basavaraj Bommai has directed educational institutions to keep tabs on “anti-national activities” on their campuses. Agriculture Minister BC Patil has called for a law to shoot dead “anti-nationals” on the spot. While subversive deeds no doubt need to be dealt with sternly, the problem lies with dubbing every act of defiance against the Narendra Modi government or its controversial actions as “anti-national” and silencing critics by invoking the draconian sedition law, even where it is not applicable. Universities and colleges have always been recognised as cradles of dissent and by threatening action against the managements if they fail to report so-called anti-national activities, Bommai’s intent clearly seems to be to silence the voice of students, and indeed all voices of dissent.

The minister’s diktat will also give a handle to vigilante groups to settle scores with those who hold opposite views, thereby vitiating the atmosphere on campuses. Such orders are reminiscent of the decree issued by the Nazis in 1933 that required Germans to report anybody who spoke or indulged in remarks against the government, the party or its leaders. Over the past seven decades, India has matured as a democracy and sporadic incidents of students who have absolutely no criminal background indulging in sloganeering or holding “objectionable” placards do not pose a threat to the unity and integrity of the country. In the United States, the Supreme Court has declared that even burning the national flag is not illegal, but is constitutionally-protected free speech. In the sixties, a large number of Americans, especially students across university campuses, protested against their own country for its role in the Vietnam War.

It is time we stopped using terms like ‘patriotism’ or ‘nationalism’ loosely and took a leaf out of America, which has emerged as the strongest democracy and the world’s lone Superpower not by gagging its own citizens, but by promoting free speech. What is unfortunate is that while Chief Minister BS Yediyurappa and his home minister are level-headed, secular and not prone to hate-mongering, they are of late playing into the hands of hardliners within the party, perhaps to please their political bosses. Karnataka has the credit of ushering in democracy in India even before Independence, with the then Mysuru Maharajas establishing a representative assembly way back in 1881 and a legislative council in 1907. The BJP government should strengthen this tradition, rather than weakening it.

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