NEW DELHI: Nietzsche wrote that there is “always some reason in madness.” Nietzsche was wrong; or so prove the events that have transpired following February 9, leading to the arrest of one student leader from Jawaharlal Nehru University and a manhunt for several others on the charges of “sedition.”

India’s enemies number one, according to the government, police and the media (particularly Zee News, Times Now and News X) are a group of left leaning students at one of India’s premier universities. These “anti-national” “terrorists” insulted “Mother India” when they got together and planned an event to protest the hanging of Afzal Guru (note: it turns out that many of the people charged, including Student Union leader Kanhaiya Kumar who is currently in judicial custody, had nothing to do with the organisation of the event). There, they raised their fists and chanted slogans against India (note: it turns out that the videos being circulated on national TV as proof of their ‘anti-India’ sloganeering were doctored). A few of them had links to Pakistan, Hafiz Saeed and the Jaish-e-Mohammad (note: it turns out none of that is true. In fact, the Hafiz Saeed link emanated from a FAKE twitter account).

I have sat transfixed to the television set as the debate on the charges against these students centres on sedition… on “anti nationalism”, on them being “traitors.” Self styled preservers of India’s nationalism have dominated the conversations on social media -- labelling anyone and everyone who draws attention to the need for rationality in terms of disagreeing with them, as “anti-national.”

Even more surprisingly, as details emerge that the proof that the police, government and TV channels relied on were fabricated, there has been no apology by those who called for or carried out the lynching of so-called “anti nationals” -- at the Patiala Court, outside JNU, on various social media forums. “We will not tolerate ‘anti-nationalists’” they continue to thunder.

In the midst of all this, I’m left confused. Where is the reason in all the madness? I ask this question on two counts.

One, what was the reasoning behind the high handed government and police action when the police marched into JNU and arrested Kanhaiya Kumar? What were they looking to achieve, and given how events have turned out, are they regretting that decision?

Yogendra Yadav on national TV correctly pointed out that the government/police action was not dictated by ‘nationalism’ but by the desire to issue a message to universities across India. A message that said that dissent will not be tolerated. “But, in this case, they picked the wrong university,” was Yadav’s parting shot, as the statement reverberated with many who were trying to grasp the reason behind the madness.

The statement made sense. After all, the current government has made it a habit to interfere in educational institutions. Before the JNU fiasco, at the start of the year, a Dalit PhD scholar at Hyderabad Central University, Rohith Vemula, committed suicide after a letter by Union Minister of State for Labour Bandaru Dattatraya on August 11 to the HRD Minister Smriti Irani demanded action against Vemula and other dalit scholars. Following the letter, and presumably on the instruction of the HRD ministry at the centre, five Dalit scholars were singled out, and faced enquiries, threats and persecution that led them to be ‘expelled’ from the hostel, without access to the university facilities except basic classes. Sources said that the emboldened ABVP made them a target. On January 17, one of the students, Vemula took his life leaving behind a suicide note that reflected the pain he had undergone, and highlighted the issue of dalit discrimination and harassment in educational institutions across the country.

JNU and HCU are not the only tales to this sordid story. As part of peaceful protests, students from various Universities 'occupied' the UGC premises for the past several days, in protest against the UGC’s move to scrap all non-NET fellowships for research scholars. As activist Kavita Krishnan wrote in an article for The Citizen, “in response, the Government has responded with the arrogance and brutality of batons, leaving several students battered and bloodied and concussed,” as protests were met with police brutality in the form of lathi charges and arrests. As Krishnan wrote, “to begin with, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) - student wing of the RSS and BJP - turned up at midnight to indulge in vile sexist abuse directed against women protesters. Then, police intervened in the name of 'preventing a clash' - but did not arrest or disperse the abusive and violent ABVP cadre. Instead, they spirited away the protesting students to the Bhalaswa police station on Delhi's border, hoping this would leave the field free for the ABVP to take up the role of pliant 'protesters' who would then' accept' the UGC/MHRD position.

Add to that the protests at the Film and Television Institute of India, Pune against the appointment of RSS functionaries in top positions. The students have been objecting to the appointment of Gajendra Chauhan as the chairperson of the institute, maintaining that Chauhan does not have the credentials to warrant the appointment. The RSS, in an article published in their mouthpiece ‘Organise’ in July, said that there was a “conspiracy” behind the protests, adding that they were “anti-Hindu.” The state has allied with Chauhan, with students being lathi charged, arrested and detained.

In May last year, the Indian Institute of Technology-Madras derecognised the Ambedkar-Periyar Study Circle (APSC), a student association, following an anonymous complaint that it was instigating protests against the policies of the Centre and creating “hatred” against Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Hindus. The complainant had drawn attention to a pamphlet distributed by APSC that had been critical of PM Modi and his government’s policies. The criticism was against the ban on cow slaughter and the use of Hindi. The ban came after HRD Minister Smriti Irani stepped in to investigate the “anonymous” complaint. In a response to the ban, APCS members wrote a letter saying, “We stand by our opinions. Yes, we were very critical of the government. However, we do not understand how dissent and criticism of the government’s policy is akin to “spreading hatred”.

Given the above, it’s reasonable to ascertain that the action against JNU is part of a larger narrative of centre-led intervention in educational institutions. In JNU’s case, however, it went all wrong as the government couldn’t swallow the backlash and has since, taken steps indicating that it is backing down.

This explanation, however, falls a little flat when you look at the scale and reputation of JNU. Did the government and police not expect the backlash? And if they did expect the backlash, why did they not have a better story/rationale? Why is their evidence in the form of fake videos and fake tweets? Is our government just that stupid?

My theory is not radically different from Yadav’s (and the rest of India who are currently scratching their heads wondering wtf?!) but it introduces a simpler element. I think that the government -- in particular Rajnath Singh who tweeted “Anyone who raises anti-India slogans or tries to put a question mark on nation’s unity and integrity will not be spared” and Smriti Irani who said, “The nation can never tolerate any insult to mother India” -- actually believed that the students of JNU were indulging in ‘seditious’ activities.

They actually believed that the students were shouting “anti-India” slogans (despite a video of Kanhaiya Kumar’s full speech doing the rounds from day one, which if you haven’t yet seen… stop reading this and watch it now). They actually believed that the tweet from Hafiz Saeed (that later turned out to be from a FAKE twitter handle) was from the LeT mastermind, which is why both Rajnath Singh and Delhi Commissioner of Police BS Bassi retweeted it. They actually believed that the students were linked to the Jaish-e-Mohammad, even though the government had to soon deny the claim.

They acted on these misguided beliefs, but did so in according with the larger narrative of government intervention in educational institutions.

By the time they realised that the video evidence did not exist, that the tweets were fake, that they had no proof whatsoever and that this whole fiasco was making them looking rather silly, they tried to make the best of the situation by deliberately spreading lies and misinformation so as to obfuscate facts. Cue Times Now, News X and Zee News -- not news channels but effectively mouthpieces of the government that aired the doctored videos as “conclusive proof” of ‘sedition’ on the part of the students, that asked all the wrong questions and shouted and screeched whenever anyone on their panel discussions actually raised pertinent points.

Perhaps my theory underestimates the BJP, but I cannot find a reason behind the Home Minister of this country retweeting (fake) Hafiz Saeed as proof of JNU’s terror links unless he actually fell for it. What that means for the national security of this country is another matter for another discussion.

As for the charge of ‘sedition.’ We all know that the charge will not hold up in a court of law (read this, as well as Fali Nariman). That part, even the BJP knew from the start, but the sedition law is not invoked for conviction; it is invoked to harass, muzzle and punish, and this, the government would have managed to do had the people of this country, and the students of its various educational institutions, not fought back.

This brings me to the next quest for reason. Now that the facts have emerged -- of doctored videos, fake tweets, fabricated terror links -- why are the self-styled nationalists not backing down? An indication of the virulent atmosphere is social media, where arm-chair, self-professed defenders of this nation descend on any article, tweet or statement posted in support of the students of JNU, subjecting the comments and feedback tools to consistent and unabated abuse.

The attempt to find an answer to the above is even more disturbing than the reasoning behind the first question that related to the government’s motive. Despite the fact that there is no evidence against the students of JNU, the students and their supporters are still being labelled ‘traitors.’ Umar Khalid is still being referred to as a ‘terrorist’. Kanhaiya Kumar is still being called ‘anti national.’ People are still being beaten up (in fact, just yesterday, a JNU professor was attacked by ABVP supports in Gwalior) and anyone who disagrees with the dominant (for sheer screaming power if not for numbers) government-backed discourse is still being threatened. Any attempt to engage with these self-styled nationalists -- in the form of drawing attention to the fact that the ‘proof’ against the JNU students doesn’t exist -- is met not with debate, discussion or reasoning, but an inundation of vile abuse.

This second question raises the following questions: Is discourse in India being reduced to a monolith? Is reasoning and rationality taking a backseat to binaries of ‘national’ and ‘anti-national’?

Is there no longer a hint of reason, even in madness?

(Photo credit: Tanushree Bhasin).