[dropcap]S[/dropcap]ecularism all of a sudden has competition from nationalism. The competition has spilled onto the streets with one subtle change in terminology. The opinion peddlers steeped in the milk of secularism have shunned the word and opted for a new one called ‘free thinking’. This merely proves one point that the word “secularism” is not attracting the majority any more. Sadly, the term meant to broad-base the concept of democracy ended up as a slogan of appeasing a certain community. Meanwhile, those from whom this was targeted remained confined to darkness and as a mere vote bank. Hence the need arose to use a new word to meet the challenge of nationalism.

But the diehard users of ‘secularism’ would find it difficult to remove it from their vocabulary. This was evident when a Congress spokesman Randeep Surjewala reverentially referred to a certain perpetrator of war against India and its democracy in his press brief. Habits die hard! Still to match the strong sentiment evoked from the word “nationalism”, the opponents have borrowed the fig leaf of right to free speech.

Arguing an issue using some oft-repeated clichés helps obfuscate an issue. Those who have been so strongly supporting free-thinking and, thus, sloganeering ‘students’ in Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, who would like to see a Balkanization of India, are doing the same. But for the not-so-erudite, this is utterly complicated. This was nicely explained by a friend of mine. He presented the issue as under:

Suppose I have bitter enmity with a neighbour and I hurl abuses at him everyday while the neighbour generally adopts the Gandhian principle and ignores me. If I call names, he ignores me. He ignores me even if I abuse his family. But when I start shouting, standing under his window, demanding to drag his wife to bed, will he not pour hot water on me? The point made is simple – even political abuse must have a limit. This is mentioned in the Constitution, a document that bears the collective wisdom of persons like Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar, Dr Rajendra Prasad et al. Like it or not, those who demanded a Balkanization of this nation must face the law as is laid down. Free speech has a Lakshmanrekha.

Even if the opinion peddlers find the simplistic example of my friend as non-palatable, a look at the background of those raising their voices against Delhi Police will not be out of place. A team of illustrious lawyers jumped the laid down procedure of legal redress and landed in the Supreme Court. The judges had to read the basic rule of procedure to them. Now, among them was one lawyer who, the rumour goes, wanted to be a governor of a large State! Since he failed to extract his pound of flesh, he opted to throw his weight behind the student union leader who led the secessionist agenda.

The other group prominent in taking up cudgels in support of the recalcitrant students comprises senior journalists who officially do not have links with any political party and are independent. Their track record though does not give much confidence in trusting their non-partisanship. They have certain problems, too. First and foremost is that in the age of social media, which has actually democratized opinion peddling from certain people’s clutches, these illustrious persons have been losing their influence. Busy as people are in airing their views and criticizing those illustrious peddlers, these journalists have coined a term “troll” for this category of participative readership. Debates, sadly for them, are not one-sided any more. These people have not only lost their pre-eminence in the public discourse due to the change in the political regime, but they also now find themselves eased out of their hallowed portals.

Unfortunately for this class, problem arose from within. Arnab Goswami, the chief editor and lead anchor of Times Now, remains the unchallenged king of India’s English news television – week after week, month after month, year after year. On the issue of anti-India protests, Arnab read the riot act on violation of constitutional propriety and a challenge to the state. His well-crafted programme won applauds from the English language TV news viewers who generally side with “free speech”. Also, the students of JNU who came to defend their action cut a very sorry figure. The other group who lost as a result were the channels which failed to take such a strong stand on the issue. The illustrious opinion makers in media already battered by the ‘trolls’ from social media could not digest the defeat. They included Arnab in their list of enemies! What was winked at in the process was Arnab’s right to free speech.

The effort to rein in Arnab Goswami faced another sudden external event. A group of lawyers decided to be the law unto themselves. They beat up the student and teacher activists of JNU who came to support the student union leader in court and also a group of reporters covering the event. The incident brought to light the line that the protesters had so long been crossing. Even media persons realized that, if they have the boom or laptop, the people on the road, at least some of them, did not have patience. In the fight between the mob and the media, the former is always the winner. This has been seen umpteen times in India. Mob fury, even if it is organized vandalism, cannot be overlooked since it involves personal safety of reporters and newspersons.

Two wrongs of course cannot make a right. The follies of JNU hotheads and the resultant euphoria of anti-BJP media should not have ended up in violence. The abrasive behaviour of lawless lawyers delivered the message of an eruption of a hidden volcano. The upper judiciary has read the warning signals. This was apparent in the Supreme Court sending the petition of illustrious lawyers to the High Court and the Delhi High Court, in turn, showing them the queue. If institutions have to remain respectable, they cannot play favourites.

The JNU incident is a loud enough message. There is a strong section of Indians that is fed up with a class of intellectuals. Their slogans have turned meaningless along with the causes they keep on espousing. This class must do some introspection and reposition their issues instead of blatantly exposing their personal agenda in every move. The sooner they do it, the better for them. In any case, they consider themselves ‘thought leaders’. Let them work on their own thoughts.