India's Rejection of Fear

*This article first appeared in Foreign Policy on March 4, 2016.*

Yet another viral story in India has sparked discussion about India's "intolerance," a word that has recently dominated national headlines. The world has watched closely as Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) student union president Kanhaiya Kumar and two other students were arrested on charges of criminal conspiracy and sedition for their roles in a campus protest over the execution of a convicted terrorist suspect. Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government has upped the ante by allowing police to file charges against key Indian opposition leaders who have supported the students or criticized the government. The list of leaders included the Congress Party's Rahul Gandhi, Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, and Communist Party of India (Marxist)'s Sitaram Yechury.

These unfolding events represent a crisis for Indian democracy and raise many pressing policy issues. But at their core is something much simpler: the tension between fear and openness. When democratic values are threatened, India's citizens have consistently shown a willingness to push for openness. This courage in the face of fear is the key to moving forward.

The air in New Delhi has grown thick with the politics of fear. The decisions to charge both students and high-ranking opposition leaders under a colonial-era sedition law are extraordinary. The government's official explanation is that the campus protesters and their defenders are "anti-nationals" who advocate for or abide threats to India's integrity. In the days immediately after Kumar's arrest, Home Minister Rajnath Singh fixated on a seemingly implausible connection between the Pakistani militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and the students protesting at JNU.

The link in that bizarre chain? A tweet, apparently from LeT leader Hafiz Saeed in support of the protests, which has since been exposed as a fake.

Some students at JNU were surely shouting provocative slogans that might discomfit or offend certain listeners. That risk is inherent in a wide range of speech. Were some of the statements incitements to violence? It doesn't appear so, particularly in the case of Kumar's speech, but this fundamental legal question has been almost entirely obscured by the Indian government's wild accusations. Ironically, it is the government's indiscriminate resort to the "anti-national" epithet that has sparked violence and threatened to drown out measured discussion.

Other factors compound the sense of official impropriety. For example, there are questions about whether videos showing JNU students shouting certain slogans were doctored, adding another data point to a growing trend of image manipulation. Heedless of these warning signs, the Indian government has doubled down on its rationale for the arrests as the social atmosphere grows uglier.

The tension between this urge to whip up fear and the countervailing push toward openness is a useful entry point into the most relevant policy and legal questions. Here are a few of them.

The first issue: How committed is the Modi government to safeguarding civil liberties and social space for non-violent dissent? The developments at JNU raise serious questions about the depth of that commitment at the highest levels. Modi's avoidance of the matter reflects his preference for a hands-off approach to civil liberties issues that spark controversy. It makes a mockery of his trademark rhetorical boldness and his pledge back in May 2014 "to take all of you together to run the nation." Instead, the JNU debacle looks like a cynical ploy to create a release valve for widespread national frustration, including over the government's inability to respond decisively to the terrorist attacks at Pathankot in January 2016. Improving India's counterterrorism preparedness and capabilities would be a show of strength; a witch hunt for "anti-nationals" is not.

The second issue concerns India's vision for its youth and education system. India's system of student politics should be a place for rich explorations of identity. Instead, it is often steeped in cynicism, corruption, and paralyzed by the status quo. On the one hand, the close link between national parties and their student affiliates means that Indian university politics, at its best, is defined by a sense of urgency, civic activism, and robust debate on pressing issues. On the other hand, when politically motivated arrests rock a campus, it is clear that a fully permeable membrane between campus and party politics exposes students to great personal risk. What is the right balance?

Third, and relatedly, how does India ensure that its laws further, rather than stifle, democracy and dissent? University campuses ought to be open environments where opposing and even offensive ideas thrive. JNU has always embodied that ethos, and it has always been a polarized and polarizing place. These sedition charges highlight the flaws in India's legal, political, and cultural approach to deciding when speech is dangerous and punishable, and when it is just a provocative part of a flourishing, confident democracy.

All of these are important and tough issues, and the key to navigating them lies in the responses to the recent, high-profile episodes of "intolerance" in India. Many of these reactions have demonstrated a core conviction that binds the United States and India as "natural allies": openness is far more compelling than fear.

Consider what happened when Aamir Khan, a Bollywood star who expressed concern about India's growing intolerance in the wake of violence against Muslims, was attacked as an "anti-national." A campaign quickly took shape to support him and his right to speech, and to defend what should have been unimpeachable: his Indianness. When rationalist academic M.M. Kalburgi was killed (as is widely supposed) for his views on idols and Hindu rituals, Indians of all stripes - religious and nonreligious - came forward to honor his memory and defend his right to his life's work. When Rohith Vemula, a Dalit graduate student at the University of Hyderabad, killed himself and left a suicide letter that sparked a furious debate about caste discrimination and student politics, champions of inclusion sprang up from familiar and surprising places.

And now, as the JNU controversy mushrooms, defenders of openness are again resisting the politics of fear and opportunism. Student protests have sprung up all over the country. There has been an outpouring of commentary in favor of free speech and dissent from across the political spectrum, showing that the incidents resonate far beyond university halls. The government crackdown has backfired, demonstrating only that JNU is precisely what the university has always believed itself to be: a symbol of the vitality of Indian democracy.

The news from New Delhi is a reminder that India must urgently confront many challenges that will define the contours of its democratic future. These debates need to acknowledge that while national security is always a critical imperative, it cannot be the sole driver of the search for a solution. As the exchanges of rhetoric and fists grow more heated, it is important to recall that Indians have, time and again, demonstrated the path forward on controversial issues involving core social and political values.

In the context of the JNU controversy, commenters have often quoted Rohith Vemula's letter. One passage, in particular, stands out: "The value of a man was reduced to his immediate identity and nearest possibility. To a vote. To a number. To a thing. Never was a man treated as a mind."

The persistent reduction of individuals to identity labels is the hallmark of a democratic system unable to properly balance the politics of fear. Recent protests by members of the Jat caste group are another reminder - in a very different context - that India's political institutions must better address citizens' fears. Although many Indians are making clear their rejection of repressive and divisive politics, fixating on a single word like "intolerance" or "dissent" obscures the opportunity to address what lies at the heart of these incidents.

The ongoing policy debates will move slowly and produce imperfect solutions. They will also be accompanied by more ugly distractions. But if they are animated by the belief that India is a place where the scale tilts toward openness, rather than fear, then that conviction will be embodied not only in the courage of so many Indians, but also in the country's formal institutions.

The views expressed are the author's own.