Just The Facts, Prof. Chomsky

I wrote this open letter to you because of my respect for you as someone driven by evidence, not by ideology.

Dear Prof. Chomsky,

I first heard your name when, as a Computer Science student at IIT Kanpur, I studied the Chomsky-Normal Form for specifying formal languages.  Many years later, I came across “Manufacturing Consent” and your critiques of US foreign policy and the nexus with the “establishment” media.  I deeply respected your writings for their quiet, insistent undeniable call to facts and reason, girded by a compassionate and moral view. Given all that, I was distressed to find you a signatory to an open letter that clearly misrepresents facts, perhaps mislead by accounts of “highly respected journalists.”

I can neither make the claim to be “highly respected” nor am a journalist, so I will simply put forth a few propositions, as an aside, before I come to the facts of the present case.

The first proposition is that the same forces that “manufacture consent” in the US have interest in “manufactured dissent” in other countries for their own purposes.  This dissent often uses natives as its agents. Without elaboration, I would point you to this Op-Ed from Nilanjana Roy in the New York Times on the JNU case. I will take up this proposition in its fullness on another occasion.

The second proposition is that the India media establishment has developed close ties with the dynastic rule of the Congress Party that ruled India virtually as a monopoly since independence.  “Highly respected” journalists were implicated in the Radia Tapes recordings (original transcripts here), for instance, where they were seen as acting as virtual power brokers for high-level appointments in the UPA Cabinet.  Social media and a growing independent blog-sphere, of which I am a small part, are increasingly challenging this media establishment.

One more aside before we come to the substance of the recent events at JNU. India’s free speech laws are not quite the equivalent of the US Constitution’s first amendment.  Police in the Indian State of Uttar Pradesh (not ruled by the BJP) recently arrested someone called Kamlesh Tiwari simply for suggesting that the Prophet Mohammad was gay.

jawaharlal-nehruThese free speech laws were watered down, starting from the first amendment of the Indian constitution, by Jawaharlal Nehru, for which JNU is named. UPA/Congress-led Indian governments used these laws to ban books, curb speech and shutdown websites and social media accounts, well before “the authoritarian menace” of the present government.  The Emergency in 1975-77, again by the Congress Party and largely un-opposed by the establishment media, was its culmination. Its main target—the predecessors of the BJP.

Before we come to the numerous factual errors in your letter, let me put forth a brief timeline of events, supported by primary sources, where possible. This is also in the hope that other media accounts, often even more bereft of facts than yours, can also be scrutinized. (All times IST)

Feb 9: The JNU Registrar and administration got wind of that a cultural event to be held at 5pm on Feb 9, was instead planned to be used for commemorating the “martyrdom” of Afzal Guru, convicted in the terrorist attack on the Indian parliament.

See Tweet of JNU student with poster of the event.

When the university authorities got wind of this (at 3pm on Feb 9) they deputed University Security and personnel to record the event and submit the report.

See TV Interview with University registrar: https://m.facebook.com/story.php?story_fbid=10153884167102593&id=820207592

At the JNU event, slogans were raised for the “destruction of India” and for “breaking India into pieces.” There are many such videos in circulation and since I am unable to directly verify their authenticity, I shall not link to these. However, note that according to the registrar, official videos were recorded and, the security personnel also took down the names of the offending students.

Feb 10: As this event broke on social media, there was a lot of popular outrage, including a Twitter trend to #ShutDownJNU and calls for their arrest grew strong.

Feb 11: A member of parliament of BJP, Shri Maheish Girri, responded to this outrage on Feb 11 at 12:58 PM requesting the HRD Minister to take “stern action”.

There was no visible response from the (central) government.

At 4:57 PM  Shri Maheish Girri, MP,  tweeted that he planned to file a police complaint at 6 PM regarding the events on Feb 9.

At 6:34 PM Shri Maheish Girri tweeted a picture of him filing the police complaint

and at 9:32 uploaded the formal complaint copy.

Note the police FIR mentions it was filed at 14:00  (based on prior phone call?) for events that took place on Feb 9 between 4:30 pm and 9:30 pm.

In Maheish Giri’s complaint letter there is no specific charge of “inciting violence” on Kanhaiya Kumar.

Kanhaiya Kumar gives a speech on the evening of Feb 11 before his imminent arrest. (FIRs in India routinely lead to arrest.). However, the process for his arrest has started before this speech. Note that the police coordinated with university authorities who had full possession of the official tape made on Feb 9.

Feb 12:

Kanhaiya Kumar is arrested by the Delhi police on the basis of the FIR regarding events of Feb 9.

Let me now take up the contents of your open letter containing many errors of fact and misleading assertions.

We have learnt of the shameful act of the Indian government which, invoking sedition laws formulated by India’s colonial rulers, ordered the police to enter the Jawaharlal Nehru University campus and unlawfully arrest a student leader, Mr. Kanhaiya Kumar, on charges of inciting violence – without any proof whatever of such wrongdoing on his part.

There are two falseshoods here. One is that the charge against Kanhaiya Kumar is for inciting violence. The other that the charges come “without any proof.” Kanhaiya Kumar was arrested on the basis of official university video on the charge of sedition.  While it is true that this is a colonial law that is true for most of India’s penal code.

From the reports of a large number of witnesses and the most highly respected journalists in the country, these are the known facts that no impartial observer denies: In a student meeting, acting well within the rights he possesses by the law of the land, Mr. Kumar spoke critically of the BJP government’s policies. On the previous day, at some other event, which he had no part in organising and at which he did not speak, a handful of other students, not even identifiable as students of the university, were shouting slogans about the rights of Kashmiris to independence from Indian military oppression over the last many decades. Mr. Kumar, whose speech (widely available on a video) cannot in any way be connected with the slogans uttered on the previous day, was nonetheless arrested for ‘anti-national’ behaviour and for violating the sedition laws against the incitement to violence.

The entire premise of this is false. Mr. Kumar was not arrested for the speech made on Feb 11 since the process for his arrest was already under way. People criticize the BJP and RSS every day without facing arrest including many of the “respected journalists.” Thus the speech that is “widely available on video” is irrelevant. In fact it is a speech he makes fearing arrest, well aware of his predicament. The speech against the BJP and RSS is, in fact, his way to “prove his innocence” by making a political speech that remains well-protected in India.

This speech is to refute the charge that he is anti-national and he is aware of the scrutiny this speech would get. Thus his speech is highly critical of the BJP and RSS, since he knows that it is legitimate criticism that he could not get into trouble for.

This was clearly repeated on the floor of the Indian parliament by BJP MP Anurag Thakur in a privilege motion in response to the JNU events. “Criticism of the Indian government is welcome, of ministers is welcome, of our policies is welcome, but not the (integrity) of India itself.”

The assertion that “Mr. Kumar, whose speech (widely available on a video) cannot in any way be connected with the slogans uttered on the previous day” is patently false. Firstly, his later speech, which is being used in this claim, had nothing to do with his arrest, since arrest proceedings were already underway. It is also wrong to say that Mr. Kumar was not “in any way connected” with slogans uttered the previous day since it has been prima facie established, based on evidence provided by the University and scrutinized by Court, that he was part of the event. The detailed judicial proceedings are still ongoing.

Since there is no evidence to establish these charges, we can only conclude that this arrest is further evidence of the present government’s deeply authoritarian nature, intolerant of any dissent, setting aside India’s longstanding commitment to toleration and plurality of opinion, replicating the dark times of an oppressive colonial period and briefly of the Emergency in the mid-1970s.

It is strange that someone sitting at MIT, with no knowledge of the events, relying on “reputable journalists” makes a sweeping assertion of “no evidence.” Rather, there were 38 university security personnel (statement by HRD minister in Parliament) at the event in question. Other than video evidence, they have made written statements regarding the event of Feb 9.  This evidence was recorded by University authorities and independently verified by the police and judicial authorities to establish a prima facie case. Kanhaiya Kumar’s speech on Feb 11, where he criticized the BJP and RSS is in fact evidence that he knows criticism of the “present government” cannot get him arrested; such criticism routinely flows throughout India including on college campuses.

These actions of the police have brought great dishonour to the government; and the failure of the Vice-Chancellor to speak out against these actions and moreover to allow the suspension of seven other students on charges that have not been established by a fair and transparent inquiry, will bring great dishonour to the most prominent university in the country in the eyes of the academy all over the world.

We, the undersigned, take a stand of heartfelt solidarity with the students and faculty of Jawaharlal Nehru University in their efforts to resist these developments on its campus and, in the name of the liberties that India and Indian universities until recently could take for granted, we not only condemn the culture of authoritarian menace that the present government in India has generated, but urge all those genuinely concerned about the future of India and Indian universities to protest in wide mobilisation against it.

Indian universities in general, and JNU in particular have not been bastions of liberty “until recently.” It is a highly politicized campus. Accounts of students victimized for their political views abound, generally by staunchly Left-leaning faculty.  This “most prominent university” has the highest rate of sexual abuse of any university in the country and its faculty prevented police enquiry of a brutal case of sexual assault by one of its own, resulting in a simple dismissal rather than criminal charges. Nor is police action at the campus unusual. Students at JNU were beaten up by Police for protesting against Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of the earlier UPA government.

Earlier events of police action at JNU did not make world news since they were not part of the manufactured narrative against the current BJP-led government.  Refer back to my initial point of the manufactured dissent by establishment media. Thus this “mobilization” you call for here against the present government is both partisan and ill-informed. That it is driven from the US against a democratically elected government, smacks of neo-colonialism. It is wrong in both the “facts” it uses and its response to them.

Let me do a brief analogy of what happened for the US audience. Imagine a big public funded University, say UT Austin, of which I am an alum. They hold a public event to commemorate the martrydom of Osama bin Laden by security forces. Not only that, they proclaim his death would be avenged and they will not rest till the US is destroyed and broken up into pieces. This is what allegedly happened at JNU that got people incensed. (What actually happened may need us to wait for the court to sift through all the evidence).

Now you might argue, that all this is protected free speech, but you can imagine the outrage in the US. You’d also bet the FBI would be on it. And, of course, India is far stricter on free speech where a stray remark on the Prophet would get you in jail and where Satanic Verses was banned (by the Congress government).

rail imageAnd remember that the call to dismember India is not theoretical. India was partitioned based on rhetoric from elite and well-educated lawyers less than 70 years ago resulting in millions of death and a wound that has still not healed. Pakistan was further partitioned into Bangladesh and hasn’t since then stopped trying to “avenge” this by fomenting insurgencies in India. All this is not armchair academics for us. It is a very real cost paid daily by the lives of ordinary people in terror attacks and by our security forces.

And Prof. Chomsky, please save your worries. As the election results after the Emergency showed, India does not take to authoritarian government lightly. If this government does take that turn, the people of India will show it the door.  Your ill-informed intervention is patronizing, unless you’ve suddenly finding a new-found love for US intervention to “save” India’s democracy.
I wrote this open letter to you because of my respect for you as someone driven by evidence, not by ideology. Unfortunately, this is not true of the many “respected” and even “highly respected” Indian intermediaries you may rely on for collecting that evidence. I hope you will publicly apologize and retract this ill-informed letter.

Sankrant Sanu is an entrepreneur, author and researcher based in Seattle and Gurgaon. His essays in the book “Invading the Sacred” contested Western academic writing on Hinduism. He is a graduate of IIT Kanpur and the University of Texas and holds six technology patents. His latest book is “The English Medium Myth.” He blogs at sankrant.org .