The Unholy Grail
- Unlike Rohith Vemula’s suicide, BJP has “created” an issue in JNU where none existed. The same event passed off peacefully last year. In 2016, the shallow definition of nationalism, which criminalises dissent, came to rule.
- An emotional construct of nationalism (Afzal Guru, national flag) has a strong patriarchal feel, subsuming a constitutional framework of justice that must cover gender, caste, class, language, religion, ethnicity, etc
- India is seeing an expansion of this kind of accusative or coercive nationalism, accompanied by hooliganism; being used as a test of identity by ABVP and other Sangh outfits across India, especially in BJP-ruled states
- After FTII and IITs, Narendra Modi government faces charge of fiddling around with the nation’s high-quality educational institutions, undermining his own India’s initiatives to make India attractive to investors
“I was astonished, bewildered. This was INDIA, a country where, whatever its faults, people could speak, write, assemble, demonstrate without fear. It was in the Constitution, in the Fundamental Rights thoughtfully included by the founding fathers... We were a democracy....” “But I knew it wasn’t a dream; there was a painful lump on the side of my head...police did come knocking, lawyers in black coat did beat me up....” “The state and its police were not neutral referees in a society of contending interests. They were on the side of the rulers, the rich and the powerful. Free speech? Try it and the police will be there to stop you.”
No, that’s not what Kanhaiya Kumar, by now India’s best-known ‘traitor’, told his lawyers. They are lines from You Cannot Be Neutral on a Moving Train by Howard Zinn—we have just replaced the proper noun ‘America’ with ‘India’. For, Zinn wrote about the United States, a people’s history of the most powerful democracy in the world, but it’s surreal how those lines could just as easily have been uttered this week in the world’s largest, the wannabe superpower.
An Orwellian nightmare seemed to be unspooling in the country, in stark and menacing B&W. The government is dropping dark hints about an international conspiracy against it, of traitors lurking in every corner and of the nation, of facing an existential threat from ‘pseudo-students’ and ‘pseudo-politicians’ (Mos Home Kiren Rijiju’s words). Prime Minister Narendra Modi too added ominously at a public meeting in Orissa that NGOs and conspirators were single-mindedly targeting him, in pursuit of their goal of “Modi ko maaro”.
Such delusions of persecution are neither new nor surprising—a victim complex is the classic trait of a crybully. Ever since the summer of 2014, Union ministers have labelled media critics as ‘presstitutes’ and poor Dalits/adivasis with legitimate grievances as ‘Maoists’. Vast armies of trolls on social media single out public intellectuals critical of the regime as ‘libtards’. Muslims, Urdu readers and beef-eaters were of course closet Pakistanis—that’s the oldest trope. And now, anyone empathising with Kashmiris or questioning the hanging of Afzal Guru is anti-national. Students and teachers in JNU are ‘spongers’.
The questioning of ‘nationalism’ as a self-serving political ideology, a modern variety of myth-making that mostly benefits the ruling elite, has a long history in the world of ideas. That analysis holds true even for the most refined versions. But the BJP serves up the thinnest, and shrillest, form of hyper-nationalism. One that helps evade the real issues of India—caste, the crisis in agriculture, the structural causes of rural and urban poverty, political alienations, and all forms of social and economic distress felt by people—and reduces everything into lurid, either/or binaries. Conflating the ‘nation’ with an aggressive mainstream religiosity, bristling with potent Hindu symbolism, it then treats this militarised ethos as a self-evident truth and classes everyone sceptical of this shallow model as fifth columnists. Little realising that, by those standards, a majority of Indians could perhaps qualify as traitors.
It would have been comical had it not been so insidious and dangerous. RSS front organisations used the refrain, ‘Jo Afzal ka baat karega, woh Afzal ki maut marega’ (He who talks of Afzal will meet Afzal’s deadly fate), to terrorise dissenters and eliminate any chance of legitimate debate. TV anchors initimidated panelists and even dared them to intone ‘Bharat mata ki jai’—and you were damned if it was proved on prime-time television that loud, chest-thumping, demonstrative patriotism was not your chosen way of engaging with the country. Others were told to choose between Indian soldiers fighting terrorists in J&K and students charged with sedition—the classic fallacy of ‘false choice’, meant and deployed only to kill nuance and complexity.
Ex-servicemen were mobilised to wave flags on streets and—incredibly—demand that battle-tanks be deployed to take on “anti-national elements” allegedly hiding in JNU, one of India’s finest universities. A delegation called on the JNU vice-chancellor to suggest a war memorial be set up on campus. “It’s the Indian variant of fascism in action,” says CPI MP D. Raja, who himself was dared by a BJP leader to “shoot his daughter” to prove his patriotism. Why did Rahul Gandhi side with the students of JNU, asked gloating BJP ministers.
Photo by AP
Smriti Irani’s histrionics in the Lok Sabha, her speech approvingly tweeted by the PM, may have been a bit short on substantial points (and perhaps less than factual, as it turned out on closer inspection), but it broke the scale on rhetoric and drama. “I am not certifying your patriotism but do not demean mine,” she told the Opposition benches. It was left to the suave TMC MP Prof Sugata Bose to point out that, going by the government’s definition, even Rabindranath Tagore would have been dubbed ‘anti-national’. “You cannot be a true nationalist if you are opposed to freedom,” said Bose, adding that students must be given the freedom to think, be idealistic and also have the freedom to make mistakes.
Smriti’s was a bravura ‘performance’—body heaving, eyes blazing, arms flailing, teeth clenched. She went on to quote Cicero, the Roman philosopher who had famously said murderers were less to be feared than ‘internal enemies’ and conspirators. (Of course, Cicero is credited with executing several alleged conspirators without following due process of law. He himself was executed later while on the run.) To most neutral observers, though, it felt as if it was the BJP regime that was conspiring against a bunch of academically bright students from modest backgrounds.
As if on cue, Delhi Police did a U-turn on not opposing Kanhaiya’s bail plea and told the court the research scholar from Bihar had “conspired” with others to organise the event to mark the Afzal hanging. The conspiracy had international ramifications—since there were masked “foreigners” at the event—and they had new evidence to prove it, the cops said. It’s another matter that even the new ‘evidence’ was wearing thin, as sting operations revealed. The old ones they relied on (and Union ministers and party loudspeakers on TV threw about with relish) of course had already been proved to be a litany of forgeries, photoshopped images, doctored videos and a tweet from a parody account of LeT chief Hafiz Saeed.
As plainclothed cops called on journalists and summoned even DU professors to inquire about their ‘links’, many were to recall Orwell’s 1984, the seminal novel that described official deception, secret surveillance and manipulation and contributed terms like ‘Big Brother’ and ‘Thoughtcrime’ to the English lexicon. Some thought of it as ‘Delhi’s Gujarat moment’. Others were reminded of the rhetoric of paranoia that preceded the Emergency in 1975. Admittedly less anarchic than those days, there’s still a creeping fear—people clammed up, opting not to discuss public issues in public places. Academics who signed petitions in solidarity with JNU confessed that they were being treated as pariahs by colleagues. Friends had stopped calling, fearful of the ‘anti-national’ bogey. There’s also more verbal violence. Vinoba Bhave had blessed the Emergency as ‘Anushasan Parva’ (a period of discipline). In 2016, we have Anupam Kher tweeting that what’s playing out is a ‘pest control’ exercise.
The animal passions the issue has aroused is taking unexpected directions. In Mohali this week, six Kashmiri youth ran into trouble at an IT firm for sporting black arm-bands—it was their way of registering the annual protests observed in Kashmir to mark the Kunan-Poshpora mass rape allegation against Indian armymen from February 23, 1991. The young Kashmiris in Mohali were asked to explain, prevented from attending classes and debarred from the hostel; their belongings simply thrown out. And their training under the ‘Udaan’ scheme was terminated. That no officer or jawan has yet been punished in these 25 years after Kunan-Poshpora is naturally a fact that raises much ire among Kashmiris. On top of that, alienated as they already are, attempts to normalise relations by sponsoring students from the Valley for education/training outside the state periodically receive serious setbacks from such ostracising. Many Kashmiri students get sent back from colleges or segregated even on the charge that they celebrate the dismal performance of the Indian cricket team.
In the event, the act of organising an event in Delhi to question the hanging of Afzal Guru was received as a rare positive gesture in the Valley, where some people came out on the streets to ‘thank’ JNU. “When was the last time you recall the Valley thanking the rest of India,” asks JD(U) MP Ali Anwar. It’s possible to see it in a salutary light, a genuine dialogue. But in Parliament, BJP MPs parroted the party line that it was plain seditious. It was left to teachers and public intellectuals at JNU to counter this miasma in open-air classes on ‘nationalism’. A nation cannot be built on the basis of rumours, insecurity, injustice and indignity, said Prof Gopal Guru in his talk, recalling Ambedkar’s words on the two ‘nations’ of India, the puraskrit (rewarded) versus the vahiskrit (ostracised). It’s a common fallacy to equate the government with the ‘nation’ and then to read political dissent through this frame of patriotism, he said.
That’s especially true of dissent that emanates from calls to justice and political ethics. In the Valley, people have never reconciled to Afzal’s hanging, largely because the Supreme Court itself is on record admitting there was insufficient evidence against Afzal but that he had to be sentenced to death to ‘satisfy the collective conscience’ of India. (A book by Nandita Haksar, which BJP ministers clearly have no inclination to read, chronicles why the judicial system may have failed an innocent.) The Afzal case also throws up some stark contrasts. He was denied the legal right to meet his family one last time, hanged in a hurry, and his body buried secretly and not handed over to the family as per law. Several Khalistani terrorists, on the other hand, have been let off. Devinder Pal Bhullar’s death sentence was commuted even after his mercy petition was rejected. The SC cited the inordinate delay in deciding his mercy plea; no such courtesy for Afzal.
Photo by PTI
A gesture of solidarity, then, can be seen as the precise opposite of sedition. If anything, events such as the one at JNU (which went off last year without any fuss) could help reassure alienated Kashmiris that there are sections in the country who empathise with them. Reciting poems, reading from books and open articulation of doubts about the case—a space to ventilate pent-up frustrations—that could be genuinely seen as acting like a safety valve. By stigmatising the event, painting in the colours of treason and criminalising its student organisers, an opportunity has arguably been missed to build bridges. If the BJP-RSS had the patience to follow ground reports from Kashmir, they would possibly have realised their folly and not lost sight of the big picture. But it’s part of myopic politics to only see (and show) what suits it, even if reality has to be doctored. So while newspapers in Delhi suggested this week that militancy in the state was at an all-time low, local media in Kashmir indicated a spurt—and worse, an outpouring of public support for it.
Just last week, as the army lost two young officers and three jawans in the Pampore shootout, several hundred women and men reportedly defied warnings and converged at the site, singing songs in praise of the militants and demanding that their bodies be handed over to them. While TV channels in New Delhi were content to play up the nationalism theme and focused on the coffins of Indian soldiers draped in the tricolour, the Kashmiri women and the men were kept at bay with teargas and pepper spray. IGP (Kashmir) Syed Javaid Mujtaba Gillani was quoted in Kashmiri papers admitting that such public support had acquired worrying proportions.
So, who is afraid of Afzal Guru? Isn’t it the hanging that made a martyr of him, and the blanket refusal to even look at the other side that has fuelled this disaffection? Why would reading out from his letters to his lawyer and to his wife amount to sedition? Isn’t freedom, as Orwell had so eloquently argued, the right to tell people what they don’t want to hear? Union home minister Rajnath Singh, in one of his more reasonable moments, said the sedition issue should be left to the police and courts and innocence or guilt will be established by due process. The only hitch there is the verifiably dodgy record of the justice system. In far too many cases, acquittal for arrested terror suspects comes after decade-long trials. (Aamir Khan of Delhi was arrested in 1998, when he was just 18, and was 32 when he was walked free—the best years of his life ruined.) The police get a long rope in the pre-trial stage, never exhaustively questioned, and are also never penalised for failures. So they go about arresting wantonly: worth remembering in the JNU case. A clear and present danger when accompanied or driven by ideological agendas.
It’s no state secret that the RSS is taking over our universities. Shakhas are being allowed to function on the BHU campus, for example, and as part of BHU’s centenary celebrations, the RSS was allowed to take out a “path sanchalan”, described as a full-dress route march. Its student wing ABVP is being given a free run to interfere in administration. No actions gets taken against its members, not even when they got into a clash with AAP supporters and chased away Raghu Ram and Gul Panag from the campus. It was on the basis of a complaint from an ABVP-affiliated student that the governing body terminated the contract of Sandeep Pandey, Magsaysay awardee and alumnus of the same institute. His fault? He had dared to screen documentary films Muzaffarnagar Baqi Hai by Nakul Sawhney and India’s Daughter by Leslee Udwin. In an NYT piece, author Ateesh Taseer recalled a conversation with vice-chancellor G.C. Tripathi. Taseer asked the V-C why Pandey was sacked; Tripathi’s reply used the phrase “anti-national” activities. On persistent questioning, an agitated V-C asked Taseer if he would be allowed to criticise the regime in the US. Taseer said yes. Tripathi, in a huff, ended the talk saying, “You may do it in the US. But this is India, here you cannot.” Taseer’s conclusion: not fit to be V-C.
But he fits the template at a time when the RSS is totally entrenched. Sangh bigwigs Dattatreya Hosbale, Indresh Kumar and Krishna Gopal are regulars, often parking themselves in the BHU guesthouse. RSS favourites get even a third term as HoDs, against the rules. A.K. Sonkar and Satyapal Yadav got through as assistant professors in the history department despite objections (their doctoral theses were found to have been plagiarised). Evidence was even brought to the V-C’s notice, but both happen to be RSS ‘volunteers’. BHU grapevine: Binda Paranjape, one of the senior-most professors and herself from an ‘RSS family’, raised the issue with the V-C, and she was apparently asked whether she was a Communist. When reports on the dubious appointments appeared in the media, she was slapped with a showcause notice. Even RSS veterans were in a state of shock. Said a professors with old links, “Earlier, the RSS never compromised on the quality of education.”
BHU, being used as an RSS laboratory with the HRD ministry’s blessings, offers a cautionary tale. Subramanian Swamy, now with the BJP, had written the Game Plan of the RSS 16 years ago in Frontline, chillingly and presciently describing the method of its creeping fascism thus: undermine the democratic opposition; shake public confidence in institutions; and turn India into a cross ‘between the Taliban and the Vatican’. Swamy, however, had ended on an optimistic note. We are a functioning anarchy that resists too much method, he wrote, adding Mother India would itself undo such plans. Judging by the images of resistance in the last fortnight, Mother India could be stirring in ways the likes of Smriti Irani may not be able to comprehend.
Patriots, Jokers & Demagogues
Photo by Nirala Tripathi
Post And Be Damned
Hours after he had posted on Facebook an edit page article by Prof Apoorvanand in The Indian Express under the headline Umar Khalid is my son, I want to say, Prof Rajesh Mishra of the sociology department in Lucknow university found himself targeted by Akhil Bharatiya Vidhyarthi Parishad (ABVP) activists. The armed group gathered outside the department, burnt his effigy and took out Mishra’s mock funeral procession amid slogans like “Jo Afzal ki chaal chalega, woh Afzal ki maut marega’ and “Jitne Afzal laoge utne Afzal marenge.” The shocked professor said he had issued a clarification as soon as he had learnt of the mobilisation. Once the TV crew, alerted by the ABVP in advance, dispersed from the scene, the activists demanded an audience with vice-chancellor S.B. Nimse to press home their point. The V-C arrived on the spot and assured “appropriate action after a detailed probe”. A peace march by 200 tricolour-waving students followed on the campus.
Sharat Pradhan in Lucknow
Photo by AP
JAMMU & KASHMIR
Uproar Revives Spirit
Schools and colleges in the Valley are closed for winter vacation but that has not prevented excited messages being shared on the social media and the odd ‘Thank You, JNU” placard appearing in Srinagar. An added reason is the involvement of a Kashmiri woman being at the vanguard of the students’ movement to secure the release of the JNU students union president charged with sedition. Muhammad Nadeem cannot hide his excitement at the cries of ‘azadi’ (freedom) raised from JNU to Jadavpur. Some like photojournalist Faisal Khan are amused because cases of sedition are filed on a daily basis in the Valley. “By muzzling the voices of JNU students, the BJP is only trying to prevent Indians from asking unsettling questions about Kashmir,” says Nadeem. Najeeb Mubarki, a former assistant editor with the Economic Times and also a JNU alumnus, points out that in Kashmir, where people are generally resigned to their lot, the huge uproar over JNU has served to revive the sagging spirit.
Showkat Motta in Srinagar
Photo by Sandipan Chatterjee
The Jadavpur University vice- chancellor’s refusal to file a police complaint against a fringe group of students who raised slogans demanding ‘azadi’ for Kashmir and Manipur has not gone down well with the Governor and Chancellor Keshri Nath Tripathi. But the V-C stood his ground and resisted pressure to file an FIR. One of the students summed up the mood and said, “We don’t want to be branded ‘anti-national’, which we are not, but we have to take a nuanced view. We are not talking about freedom from the country, we are talking about freedom from the kind of state oppression taking place in states like Kashmir or in the Northeast.” Yet another said: “We think the threat from Pakistan or China is not an excuse to crush dissent emanating out of threats to freedom of expression.” And while the chief minister has been conspicuous by her silence on the issue, the vice-chancellor has maintained that freedom of speech is integral to the university’s ethos.
Dola Mitra in Kolkata
Photo by Sharon Fernandes
TRAINs and buses are seeing talk about the need to punish “anti-nationals” and the mood is largely in favour of the BJP government as long as the “development” agenda is not compromised and the stockmarkets don’t crash. At a demo near CST railway station, protesters spoke about attacks on Soni Sori, Rohith Vemula’s case and the latest incidents on the JNU campus. They were soon made to leave and go to Azad Maidan. They distributed pamphlets to commuters rushing to catch the next local. Bollywood has been cautious after the Aamir Khan controversy. The students seem to be forming associations in Mumbai University, IIT-Bombay, TISS and FTII, and issuing statements. “Students come here when they are 17, 18. Till then the focus would have been on getting through IIT. Here they get exposed to various ideas and ideologies. In a democratic setup, there can be no final say on what is national and anti-national. It is a process,” says Paankhi Agarwal from IIT-B.
Prachi Pinglay-Plumber in Mumbai
Photo by Vivek Pateria
At Indore, when Congressmen arrived at the RSS office to hoist the nationa flag, they were caught by surprise when RSS members greeted them, applied tilak on their foreheads and joined them in the act. In Bhopal, police stopped them from reaching the RSS office. While the BJP observed ‘Dhikkar Divas” on February 21 to condemn anti-national elements, Congress retorted by observing the next day as ‘Sanghvad Mukti Diwas’ (Freedom from the Sangh). Opinion is divided on the nationalism row. Badrish Shukla, a final year student at MANIT, condemned the media for being judgmental and for dividing the nation on JNU. Palak Dubey, president of the students council and a final year student in the same institute expressed why he was unhappy. “Maybe, some students went overboard while trying to prove their point. They might have made some
unwarranted comments. But it should not be used to paint the university with its lofty traditions and the thousands of its students in the darkest hues of black,” she said.
K.S. Shaini in Bhopal
Photo by Kashif Masood
Responding to a call for a state-wide demonstration demanding action in the Rohith Vemula incident, students at the Kuvempu University in Shimoga took out a procession on campus. The local BJP Yuva Morcha took out a protest march the next day in the city of Shimoga, demanding action against some professors, accusing them of misleading students and provoking “anti-national” feelings. “The event was organised with extreme sensitivity. No slogans were raised. We began with a moment of silence for the soldiers who died in Siachen, says Prof Rajendra Chenni of the English department, one of the faculty members invited by students to participate in the event. “Most of us spoke about the unfortunate turn of events where, just when we thought that in post-colonial India opportunities for research were opening up for everybody, including Dalits, latent casteism appears to have surfaced,” he added. At Bangalore’s Town Hall, a popular venue for protests, right-wing meetings have been frequent of late.
Ajay Sukumaran in Bangalore