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Of the Same Ilk

This story was originally published by Dawn, Pakistan

Feb 27 2016 (IPS) - IT has been almost two weeks since the beginning of a protest movement of students, teachers and the wider democratic community in and around Delhi`s famed Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) that represents arguably the biggest challenge that Narendra Modi`s BJP government has faced since coming to power. Perhaps unsurprisingly, we in this country have scarcely paid attention to the whole af fair, even though it tells us much about India, its politics, and, indeed, just how similar our two countries are.

The story begins with the head of the JNU student union publicly denouncing the secretive manner in which Kashmiri militant Afzal Guru a convicted `terrorist` was executed three years ago. Twenty-eight-year old Kanhaiya Kumar is doing a doctorate in African Studies at JNU, and is associated with the All-India Students Federation, the student wing of the Communist Party of India (CPI). Needless to say, Kumar does not harbour any ideological sympathies for Guru, but he nevertheless is entitled, like all principled opponents of organised power, to ask questions about the state`s `counterterrorism` juggernaut.

History teaches us that it is precisely these types of principled questions that most threaten established structures of power because they expose the ideological foundations of domination. On cue, Kumar was arrested on sedition charges and sent to jail, with other student leaders put on a blacklist amidst a widespread propaganda drive denouncing Kumar and his associates as `enemies of India`.

The arrests and vilification campaign were met with outrage, and thousands of students mobilised at JNU as well as numerous other campuses across the country against the Modi regime. Indeed, students were already up in arms following the suicide of Hyderabad University PhD student Rohith Vemula a few weeks earlier in protest against the discrimination meted out to him by the university administration on account of his Dalit activism. Kumar`s arrest only confirmed that the BJP government is hell-bent on reinforcing India`s worst traditions of Brahmin supremacism and state authoritarianism.

And herein lies the rub. For all of the insistence ofstateideologues on bothsides of the border, India and Pakistan are far more similar than they are different. And here I am not referring to our shared cultural traits and dispositions but to the legacy of colonial rule that continues to shape how our states think and act.

The decision to accuse Kumar of fanning `anti-state` sentiments is hardly an anomaly.

The Indian state has not hesitated to lodge sedition charges against dissidents in the past, and its propensity to do so is unlikely to be diminished by the current episode.NationalistsinKashmir,AssamandNagaland, caste activists, leaders of ecological movements all have suffered the state`s wrath, their only crime being their willingness to speak up for their legitimate rights.

The Pakistani state is of the same ilk. It could even be argued thatit has outdone its Indian counterpart over the years inasmuch as anti-state charges are bandied about even more liberally in this country than next door.

Yet it matters little which state is better at criminalising dissent because both do it well enough to be considered virtually indistinguishable.

Of course there are also stark differences in our respective political contexts. The very fact that educated young people have carried on a mass protest against Rohith`s suicide and Kanhaiya`s arrest confirms the fruits of democracy students in Pakistani varsities have not even had the right to elect their own representatives for more than 30 years sinceZiaul Haq banned unions in 1984.

In this country the army remains a sacred cow which guards the `ideological frontiers` of the state a power that is unmatched by any institution in India.

Indeed, one could not countenance the creation of military courts through a con-stitutional amendment in Delhi as happened in Islamabad in January 2015.

So while we in Pakistan feel outrage at the nationalist jingoism currently on show in India, we are also a little bit envious at the democratic means available to those who function as the conscience of Indian society to resist state power. There is little doubt that democratic forces in India face a pushback from right-wing zealots today unlike anything they have ever faced before the fact that a party espousing `Hindutva` as its guiding ideology is running the government at the centre indicates just how far the religious right has come. But progressive traditions in India run deep, and it is these traditions that inspire radicals on this side of the border in our evolving struggle against the establishment and the forces of reaction.

In the final analysis, Indians and Pakistanis share the same future, just as we share the same past. If this future is to be a democratic, plural and egalitarian one, it will be in spite of rather than because of the states that we have inherited.

The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.

 
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