Sparks flew in the Lok Sabha on Wednesday as the raging Jawaharlal Nehru University row and suicide of Dalit student Rohith Vemula was taken up for discussion, with opposition accusing the government of muzzling the voice of the youth and "mercilessly crushing" the principles of democracy.
To counter the opposition onslaught, the Bharatiya Janata Party targetted Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi for his "support" to those standing with hanged Parliament attack convict Afzal Guru and said the House has to decide if it stands with those who attacked Parliament or those who laid down their lives defending it.
The debate, on the first working day of Budget session, saw accusations and counter-accusations, with both ruling and opposition sides underlining their credentials as "nationalists".
Initiating the debate, Congress' Chief Whip Jyotiraditya Scindia alleged "undue interference" by Union HRD Minister Smriti Irani and Labour Minister Bandaru Dattatreya in Vemula's case.
"Bandaru Dattaterya in his letter had called Rohith a castiest and an anti-national. Where in the world can you see a HRD minister writing five letters in any case," he said.
Scindia also raised the issue of FTII, IIT Madras and JNU and said, "the government was trying to muzzle the voice of the youth."
Lambasting the government, Scindia attacked External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, Tribal Affairs Minister Jual Oram and Irani for emphasising that Vemula was not a Dalit.
Criticising the role of HyderabadUniversity administration, he said protests and fights are the part of academic institutions but in this case the vice-chancellor should have tackled this issue in a better way.
However, he instead suspended the Dalit students and compelled them to stay in an open tent because of the the "politics of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and BJP," Scindia said.
"What is the duty of the government? It is to protect the democratic institutions and work for the betterment of the people. But since last two years, with the atmosphere of intolerance, no one feels secured. It is mercilessly crushing the democratic principles," the Congress leader said.
"The prime minister speaks of demographic dividend of the youth. But what do we see in the country? In Madhya Pradesh, we see Vyapam in Madhya Pradesh, the problem of drugs in Punjab, the way the voice of students in FTII was muzzled.
The government machinery is being misused and is trying to crush the voice of the dissident and those having the contrary view," he said.
He also questioned the silence of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, saying "He tweets on every other thing, but it took five days for him to speak on this matter, only after a worldwide uproar. There is no reference on in the Mann Ki Baat."
Scindia said while the government was celebrating 125th century of Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar, it was not following its path. "There is huge gap between the talk and the act of the government."
Scindia said nobody supports the slogans which were chanted in JNU but slogans cannot be criminalised and termed as treason.
He alleged that the government was angry with the JNU because it stood against "saffron terrorism", Dadri lynching, RSS and the suicide of Rohith Vemula in the HyderabadUniversity.
JNUSU President Kanhaiya Kumar was targeted for his opposition to RSS and ABVP, the Congress leader said. From the BJP side, Anurag Thakur raised the nationalist pitch over the JNU issue and attacked Congress, saying for the party, "it is 'family first', 'party next' and 'nation last'.
For us, it is 'nation first', 'party next' and 'family last'." He alleged that Rahul Gandhi went to the university to support such outfits which were named by the previous United Progressive Alliance government as "frontal organisations" for Maoists.
"I want to ask Sonia ji, why your young leader was standing with those who stand with Afzal Guru," Thakur said addressing the Congress president who was present there.
His speech saw protests from Congress members who raised a point of order, saying he was levelling "derogatory allegations" against Rahul, a contention rejected by the speaker.
He alleged that when 74 security personnel were killed in a Naxal attack in Dantewada in Chattisgarh a few years back, there were celebrations in JNU. Thakur also referred to the Batla House encounter in which a Delhi Police inspector had died in an encounter with terrorists and said that a Union minister belonging to Congress had then said Sonia Gandhi "cried" over the death of terrorists.
"You did not go to the house of the martyred Inspector. Rahul also could not go. But he went to JNU," he said. Earlier, Scindia said, "Live and let live in India.'
In a swipe at Home Minister Rajnath Singh over his claim that Lashkar-e-Tayiba founder Hafiz Sayeed had supported the controversial JNU event, the Congress leader said Singh had no face to show after it was found the Hafiz's tweet was fake.
He also referred to controversial statements by several BJP leaders, including a member of Legislative Assembly remarks that Rahul Gandhi be shot, and said action should have been taken against them.
He termed as a joke the HRD Ministry's decision following the JNU row that all universities will hoist tricolour.
Sugata Bose (Trinamool Congress) accused the government of being "heartless" in dealing with the students and said the situation in the JNU should have been handled with sensitivity.
Observing that similar problems were witnessed at JadhavpurUniversity, he said, the West Bengal government did not over-react but tried to defuse the situation. He said people could disagree with students but it would be incorrect to brand them anti-national and slap sedition charges on them. "They too have the right to make mistake," he added.
Nobody, Bose said, should claim monopoly on nationalism and the government should respect the right of everyone including that of students to freedom of speech and expression.
Quoting Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose, he said, it would be wrong to pursue nationalism which is "narrow, selfish and arrogant."
He suggested that laws dealing with sedition should be repealed as they were enacted by colonial rulers to subserve their ends.
The passionate speech of Bose was appreciated by several members of the House. Congress leaders Sonia and Rahul walked up to his seat to congratulate him.
Participating in the discussion, Biju Janata Dal member Tathagata Satpathy described Azfal Guru as a "scoundrel" and said the system gave the dreaded man full chance to defend himself.
However, he added, the government should have handled the JNU episode with care and the Home ministry should not have made a statement on the basis of tweets, "which are no more than gossips".
Arvind Sawant (Shiv Sena) demanded that Article 370, which grants special status to Jammu and Kashmir, should be repealed and stressed that those who may try to break this nation "should be torn into pieces".
Sawant said that today some sections were praising Afzal Guru and Maqbool Butt and tomorrow they would even praise Kasab, that would be regrettable.
Samajwadi Party President Mulayam Singh Yadav said the JNU is a prestigious institute and for the first time it has been labelled as "desh drohi". The incident of February 9 in JNU should be investigated properly, he said adding people who have raised anti-national slogans should be punished.
Telugu Desam Party member P Ravindra Babu termed the suicide of Dalit student Rohith Vemula as "unfortunate" and said sedition charge against the JNU student "is too harsh a measure".
He said several banks have declared NPAs and it is weakening the Indian economy and "those people need to be charged with sedition charges". He said if students are punished, "they will become hardcore criminals".
On the Dalit student suicide in HyderabadUniversity, TRS member Konda V Reddy, whose party is in power in the state, said this was not the first incident.
"Just as secularism is not the patent right of Congress, nationalism is not the patent right of BJP," he added. Reddy said the laws are ambiguous about sedition and "we should have definite laws".
Communist Party of India-Marxist member M B Rajesh said the incidents of the Hyderabad University and the JNU have shaken the conscience of the entire nation.
He alleged the suicide of Vemula is an "institutional murder" and that some union ministres have made insulting statements against Rohith and "now they are targeting the JNU".
"The JNU is always their prime target," he said. Several respected people are alumuni of JNU, he said, adding "how can you brand such institutions as a centre of nati-national? Do you have an iota of evidence? There have been fabrication of evidences, fake tweets".
Lok Janshakti Party member Chirag Paswan said if some people are involved in anti-national sloganeering, action should be taken against them. "Freedom of speech does not mean that you become the voice of anti-nationals," Paswan said adding "I am proud of JNU and we need not politicise the issue".
Tariq Anwar of NCP said the government showed unnecessary haste in taking action on the JNU students. "The entire central government has become active and are saying that JNU is nati-national...people who have raised anti-national slogans should be punished and not the innocent ones...the work which should be handled at the level of the vice-chancellor, police and the Home minister are there".