July 04, 2020
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Speaking Free

The idea of India and what it means to people...

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Speaking Free

Is nationalism itself often a thin, vacuous badge? Does the sedition debate exclude the legitimacy of other opinions? Are we staring at an orchestrated attempt to pounce on anything that doesn’t fit into a fixed template? Are divisive forces cracking up the idea of a liberal, democratic people in dialogue? Is this reminiscent of the Emergency? As these questions sweep college campuses, workspaces and rallies, we look at what some have to say about the idea of India as it unfolds. 

Bina Ramani

The richness of India lies in its diversity. But now the rising fundamentalism around the world is a big threat, and in India too, the Hindutva message of a monolithic society has sparked many fears. The definition of sedition is being misused gravely.

Achyut Yagnik
Social Scientist and activist

The leadership of the BJP is fascist in nature. There’s a clash between two ideas of India. The first is inclusive—right from the edicts of Ashoka to Jain philosophy and Akbar’s reign, we’ve seen tolerance towards other religions and sects. The other is the Hindutva, monolithic view of India with no space for dissent. What’s going on in the country is like an undeclared Emergency.

Srikanth Sastry
Professor, Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research, Bangalore

After 68 years of Independence, there are disappointments around what we’ve managed to achieve in terms of social justice, equality or citizenship in a free India. People are bound to express dissatisfaction, and dissent has a key role to play in changing for the better. Self-satisfaction does not foster transformation. There’s no shame in taking interest in a particular strand of your heritage and following it through so long as you don’t exclude the legitimacy of other strands. But if you want to hold on to an imagination of a pure past, then reality will always disappoint and contradict you.

Dr A. Sampath

It’s becoming difficult to distinguish between nationalism and majority communalism. What the BJP and RSS are doing is reminiscent of Nazism in Germany in the 1930s. The idea of nationalism is not the monopoly of BJP alone. They have a meticulous, pre-planned agenda to get hold of educational institutes and suffocate voices of dissent. People who believe in the ideals of democracy, diversity and a secular social fabric are under great threat.

Prashant Bhushan
Lawyer, activist, politician

The RSS and BJP feel that every citizen should follow their idea of nationalism, which is that of an unquestioning and accepting individual. We must not question what the government does in the name of the people, what it says and must accept status quo. If you wave the national flag and yell ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai’ you are a national, and anyone who doesn’t, is anti-national, anyone who discusses freedom for Kashmir is anti-national. Debates like these have happened in many countries and more often than not have led to revolt, even partition. 

It is strange that those who sided with the British during partition (the RSS) are speaking about nationalism. It is strange that the people who have been involved in the worst kind of corruption, lumpen-lawless behaviour, bad language, fabricated videos and photos have donned the mantle of nationalism and are raising a finger on those who have working for the country. 

The JNU row was a well planned conspiracy hatched at least a day in advance to charge these students of anti-national acts and JNU as an anti-national university. We are looking at a fascist government in power that wants to propel a communal, Hindu Rashtra. We are seeing the same turn of events as in Germany during the time of Hitler – the same methods of nationalism and targeting were used. To avoid the same outcome people have to now stand together and voice their dissent.

Siddharth Sharma
Musician and producer

Freedom of expression is the last thing that we have and you cannot stop the youth of this country from exercising it. If you kill my music, you kill an idea. They call me anti-national and a gaddar. First hear the music! I do not want to be afraid and I do want to make more music.

Manabi Bandyopadhyay
Transgender principal at Women’s College, Krishnanagar

The struggle of a transgender is a global struggle in which the solidarity that is extended to one another is not limited to the borders of a nation. For me the idea of nationalism or patriotism is not divisive but inclusive.

Girish Karnad
Actor, playwright

I think this whole talk of nationalism is bunkum. People make “anti-nationalist” comments all the time, and I don’t understand why this is any different. I remember when I was leaving the country I said I never want to come back and called it rotten. But that doesn’t make me an anti-nationalist. Nationalism is not necessarily an ongoing idea for every individual and there can be bouts of what is being called “anti-nationalist” behavior. It should be okay to do that without being charged for it. As long as you aren’t indulging in violent acts and causing public property damage, everyone should have freedom of opinion.

Anand Patwardhan
Documentary filmmaker

The hysteria about "nationalism" began after writers, artists, filmmakers, historians and scientists returned their national awards because something had changed in India. The killing of rationalists, the attacks on Muslims in the name of the cow, and a well thought plan to saffronise education were the triggers. Instead of absorbing this critique, the RSS and its fellow travellers in the media are becoming ever more aggressive. The FTII strike against saffronisation is brutally suppressed. Rohith Vemula, a brilliant Dalit Phd scholar is driven to suicide. JNU’s Kanhaiya, whose last speech before arrest, captured on a shaky cell phone, haunts me with the horrifying reality that once again the rulers of this country are willing to sacrifice a proud Bhagat Singh who stood steadfast for the poorest of this land. It is an immense irony that those who never fought for India’s Independence flew only their saffron flag, and are mortgaging our economic sovereignty, are now wrapping themselves in the tricolour.


Prakash Ambedkar
Dalit leader

The government’s idea of nationalism is a cultural imposition. If you look at the past 60 years or so, the RSS has always had a following but they never had the kind of independent space they have now. But now merely defeating the BJP electorally will not help. Now we need to engage with the RSS on issues such as what is nationalism, the issue of state and religion and how far religion needs to be limited. Even in the past we have taken out morchas, but this kind of slapping cases against the one who organises a morcha is new. The government is imposing itself on every aspect of life – what to eat, how to think, where to go. This crackdown is serious.


Mrinal Pande
Writer, journalist

It is puzzling that a population that has always lived with so much religious and cultural diversity should suddenly be pushed towards what is at best, a selective and narrow concept of nationalism crafted by a section of the majority community. For a true democracy it is imperative that any citizen can express irreverent thoughts about the government of the day, without being stamped as anti-national and incarcerated. That disagreements can be settled before a court and not by blood thirsty lynch mobs, that one can go listen to a public debate about democracy without being terrorised by the police are the minimum conditions of civilisation. But it seems like anyone who intervenes in the narrow and exclusivist political discourse launched by the party with a majority, will soon be doing so at his or her own risk.


Krishnaswami Dara
Assistant professor, political science, Jamia Millia Islamia

The situation in the country is very grim. The government of a democratic nation should be able to accept criticism and not impose extreme charges; it is a misuse of law. And to say it in the name of nationalism is debatable. Nationalism as an ideology works well with a few communities and castes, but couple it with patriotism and it can become regressive and dangerous. I am for the idea of one nation, but nationalism can sometimes think of itself as bigger than the nation and that becomes a treacherous territory. What is happening now is Hindutva forces are claiming to be nationalists and telling you what does and does not qualify as nationalist. I mean, if I am fighting for the rights of the Kahsmiri women who have been raped by army men does it make me an anti-nationalist? The BJP had rejected the Supreme Court verdict on the Babri Masjid case; did it make them anti-nationalist? No, because the constitution is your reference. If you go against the constitution, you can be charged with sedition. What is especially scary about the current government is the monopoly over the idea of nationalism. They cannot call out alone what nationalism should mean to each citizen of the country. If the government is not warned, we would be looking at a fascist regime.


K. Marulasiddappa
Kannada writer

The current debate on nationalism has become extremely politicised. Everyone is a nationalist at some level, but maybe a particular brand of nationalism is growing stronger than others. It's absurd that the nationalism issue rather than other social evils should become such an emotional issue. In the seventies, we could have discussed anything on earth. No one would have branded you as a desh-drohi. Now, if you speak about something liberal, you will be branded as one. At that time, I think there were liberal people in all parties. Now, in every party, dwarfs have emerged as leaders.

Prathibha Prahlad
Bharatanatyam dancer and socio-cultural activist

The argument of ‘anti-nationalism versus freedom of speech’ has been completely derailed and misinterpreted by many. Freedom of expression to me is the freedom to voice my dissent on issues, incidents, judgments, decisions of the State or otherwise, provided this dissent in no way compromises national security and is not divisive, subversive or a carefully crafted attack on the country. What we are seeing in the name of ‘freedom of speech’ today are hate mongers; propagandists who intend to divide public opinion with half - baked views and irresponsible statements. That they are using vulnerable, yet rebellious young students to carry forth their agenda of working against the interests of the country is disturbing. JNU had always been a political nest. Many political parties have their stamp there in the students’ unions that contest elections. But I am saddened that dangerous and divisive forces have been using these young minds to propel agendas that are disturbing, violent and outright seditious in the name of ‘freedom of speech’. Freedom of speech is sacrosanct but not absolute. The kind of sloganeering resorted to in the ‘JNU episode’, which in essence was about a fight to give Kashmir independence at the cost of destroying the very fabric of our country, carry an armed fight against the forces, divide the country into splinters is outside the purview of law. It cannot be acceptable to any government

Karuna Nundy
Supreme Court advocate

The BJP government and the Sangh Parivar’s idea of unity diverges from Indian Constitutional equalities. It’s based on a dominant and somewhat theocratic, savarna, Hindu national identity, and so creates unequal categories of citizens. Constitutional patriotism, on the other hand is based on a love for the values that bind India as we know it, an acceptance of all the cultures that make us, the fluid ability to reject or add to our given religious, caste and gender identities. Who gets to speak and negotiate this social contract? When the main priority is to establish the supremacy of a group, free speech and association becomes a necessary casualty. Strong courts provide a counter-balance but it’s not one of equals when a government suppresses freedoms at a large enough scale. Our court system is much slower at the moment. Development is the plank the Union government initially came to power on. The political answer to the Hindu Nationalist project lie in state governments that flourish with greater equality, but also prosperity.


Khushboo Sundar
Actor and Congress party Spokesperson

For me, nationalism is the diversity of our country and secularism. It acts as a large umbrella and takes everyone under it. Unfortunately, our “Indianness” is under threat because of growing racism and intolerance. The current government is trying to force its ideas on the minds of the young, telling them what being Indian is about. I do believe in freedom of expression, but you also can’t misuse it. As responsible citizens we need to draw the line so that you do not incite people. Those who have done so need to be pulled up.

 Shoma Sen
Associate professor of English, Nagpur University

The present government with RSS backing different organisations of the Sangh Parivar is trying to divert people’s attention from other problems like price rise, unemployment or privatisation. The middle class thinks it’s essential to talk about this brand of nationalism and have been made to believe that the minorities are their enemies. The George Bush syndrome is playing out here, that is, you’re either with us or not with us. You’re either patriotic or not. Days of struggle are ahead and people are raising their voices. The State must see the writing on the wall.


Anil Dharker
Columnist and writer

Our ruling party has a huge misconception about what qualifies as nationalism or anti-nationalism. Theirs is a very narrow definition. Nationalism to me is the feeling of loyalty and affection for one’s country. Being a nationalist does not stop you from criticising what needs to be criticised and pointing out faults. Freedom of speech is the essence of democracy and even nationalism; people forget that. And I think ours is a nationalist nation; I think everyone has great love, affection and loyalty for the nation. But we must remember that the nation is also plagued by poverty, unemployment and deprivation, and if we are being critical of the government with regard to these people we are not anti-nationalists. In fact, we are being nationalists. We have a system where the rich get away with things easily while the poor are put behind bars. And if we are calling out against injustices, we are being nationalists. When it comes to sedition, I do believe the definition is archaic. It has been carrying on since imperial rule when every freedom fighter was charged with sedition. It is a very serious offence and cannot be used offhandedly. The definition of the term must be revisited.

S.Y. Quraishi
Former CEC

The country is going through a most difficult phase of history. The unprecedented social disharmony, if not addressed promptly and effectively, will have long term consequences. We are becoming a violent and intolerant society. From road rage to lynch mobs, everyone seems to be on a short fuse. Self-righteousness is everyone's exclusive preserve. Everyone has his own definition of rights and freedoms. Four years ago in my book on Indian elections I had expressed my anguish about the erosion of institutions of governance in the following words:

I would like to assert my feeling that is best expressed in Urdu that: ‘sarkar apne iqbal se chalti hai’ (a government can run only by its moral authority). With declining political standards, the moral authority, not just of the government but of all its institutions, is fast eroding. There was a time when one constable with a lathi was enough to control a crowd of a thousand people. Today, it seems we need a one-to-one ratio. This spells danger, if not an impending disaster. We have only slipped a few notches. Today we all think in terms of narrow caste, communal, parochial and political interests. This is threatening our identify as a nation. Any short term gains are causing long term damage to the idea of India we are all so proud of. An honest introspection is urgently required.

Dr Rajesh Misra
Professor of Sociology, University of Lucknow

My idea of nationalism is quite clear. A nation means its people and not geography or boundaries. The idea of countries is one where people develop a consciousness together and start identifying with the idea. If people talk about political autonomy for a region, we should be willing to debate the degree to which it is possible or not. It’s our responsibility as a nation to keep anyone integrated, not homogenised. There is a clear distinction there. We must take everyone along, sabka saath as they say, not force people into submission.

Girish Kuber
Editor, LokSatta

Due to the absence of strong leftist or socialist leadership in Mumbai, there is barely any force to counter the present right-wing atmosphere here. People have lapped up their nationalism idea and there is no space for liberal or alternative thought. There’s violence in the air. If you hear conversations in trains, people are saying things like the anti-nationals need to be thrashed and so on. Some thinkers and activists are trying to resist such attempts, but that is clearly a minority and it is not easy for them. The communists and the trade unions are practically non-existent, the Shiv Sena is on a different path and the ABVP is of course on the side of the government. 

Shakti Sinha
Retired Bureaucrat

Universities should be centres of knowledge and enquiry. No university is above the norm, they are a part of society and can’t be set apart. The whole purpose of being a student in a university is to be learning and contributing to the generation of knowledge, which apparently is not happening. You can’t be living off the land and giving gaalis to the land. Your idea of India may differ from mine, but we agree that there is an India. You can’t have it both ways.

By Priyadarshini Sen with Stuti Agarwal, Siddhartha Mishra, Prachi Pinglay-Plumber, Dola Mitra, Ajay Sukumaran, Mitu Jain

A shorter, edited version of this appears in print

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