NEW DELHI: I met Jawaharlal Nehru University Students Union President Kanhaiya four years ago. He was one of 60-70 students from Delhi who travelled with us to Kashmir, taking the arduous journey in two buses that had been arranged by the Centre for Policy Analysis as part of its ongoing people to people interactions between Delhi and Srinagar.

The students, many from Jawaharlal Nehru University, were volunteers who had responded to the program to visit Kashmir and have a day long meeting with students and young people there. In earlier interactions, CPA had brought senior political leaders, academics, journalists, women organisations together with Kashmir’s counterparts with the politicians from different political parties meeting even the separatist leaders to guage their mind, and to see whether a real contribution to reducing the deficit of trust and confidence could be made by both sides.

Kanhaiya was a fairly non-descript student, as students go but I remember him for two, actually three reasons. One his name, two his persistence and visible enthusiasm and three I will just get back to. He kept coming up to us, insisting he be given a chance to speak. What is your name? Kanhaiya, he said and it remained in my mind as it was so unusual to the ears. However, given the enthusiasm of all the others, including the more senior students there Kanhaiya would have been left out of the speakers list but for his persistence. So he got the podium, and then for a boy who had never been in Kashmir before, rendered one of the most political and yet sensitive speeches that I have ever heard. He encapsulated the grievances of the young students of Kashmir---foremost being the political climate in the state, as in that year 126 odd students had been killed in police firing-- and reached out to them in the language of youth that had everyone applauding. Incidentally there was not a word in his speech that could be construed even remotely ‘anti-national’, he spoke with youth-to-youth empathy, and verbally held their hand. That was enough, as that was all that was required. The Kashmiri students were not looking at the Delhi youth for a solution, they just wanted to know whether anyone outside the Valley cared. And this visit showed that there were students who did care.

I never met Kanhaiya again. The students returned from Kashmir in the same buses. And the next I heard of the young student was when he became the president of JNUSU and someone reminded me that he was the same Kanhaiya who had spoken so well in Srinagar. So imagine one’s complete surprise to find that he has been arrested on charges of sedition, when the boy hailing from a not so well off Bihar family was a moderate by any sense of the term. I cannot remember all that he said but it was roughly a political reaching out without a word even about possible solutions. Incidentally we had told the young people that the idea was to build trust, and this could not be done by taking positions that would only introduce levels of unwanted controversy. Questions have been asked by reporters in Srinagar but the delegations of senior politicians, academics, women and of course the youth have all responded with the one stock reply: we are not here to offer solutions, we are here to generate a climate, a level playing field where a solution of any kind to what New Delhi has recognised as a problem, is just and fair.

Yes of course government policy in Jammu and Kashmir has been questioned and attacked. in 2012 the National Conference and the Congress were in power, and in the firing line insofar as the governance and management of Jammu and Kashmir was concerned. In 2015, it is the BJP in power with the Peoples Democratic Party currently sitting its elected term out. And clearly the room for dissent has shrunk dramatically with Kanhaiya’s arrest on charges of sedition clearly intended to send out a message that there is no room for a point of view that the government does not subscribe to. After all the strength of India has always been associated with her ability to hold and absorb discussions, protests, sloganeering, without going over the top. And more so with the youth, who as we all know, are always just that bit more passionate, more radical, more enthusiastic with Universities providing them with the platform, and intervening if matters went beyond acceptable limits.

But to flood a campus with the police, to carry out combing operations as if the students were terrorists, and then arresting and slapping a charge of sedition on a young man makes no sense, perhaps not even to those carrying out the orders.After all what is nationalism? Isn’t it all about working for a strong, vibrant, democratic India? And wasn’t that what Kanhaiya was trying to do when he went all the way to Kashmir with the other students, and instead of sitting in judgement reached out to the conflict-traumatised young people? And how does democracy remain vibrant and strong if students with different and differing views are treated as ‘enemies’ by the state?