It has been an interesting few days in the Capital, with arrests, allegations and assaults, all with the reputed Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) at its centre. It began with a protest, organised by one of the many ideologically diverse political groups on the campus, where students are alleged to have shouted anti-national slogans. Soon thereafter, the president of the JNU Students Union, Kanhaiya Kumar, was arrested and charged with sedition. In the days that followed, JNU has achieved what can only be described as hashtag status, with a bevy of hashtags, from #shutdownJNU to #standwithJNU being pushed around by news channels and social media. Everyone has weighed in, from news anchors frothing at the mouth to register their indignant patriotism and prophylactic counting legislators from the ruling party, to unsuspecting people roaming around CP caught on the cameras of a bunch of different YouTube channels.
What emerges from the unending tweets, comments and news bytes is that this entire episode has been packaged rather conveniently by the powers that be as one of patriotism vs. anti-nationalism, of the proud Indian against the ungrateful, treacherous deshdrohi. In their quelling of dissent, the government has sought to turn the masses against these few students too, branding them as threats to the very fabric of our nation, as depraved, corrupted youth who spend all day thinking of ways betray their motherland and all night participating in drug fuelled (and thankfully, protected) orgies at night. The scary part is that people are buying it. Right from the vicious assault on Kanhaiya by lawyers at the Patiala House Court premises to reports of people being stopped by the police for ‘looking like JNU students’, there are many manifestations of what an ABVP leader called ‘janakrosh’, or ‘wrath of the people’, a rather impressive sounding word for fanaticism.
Most disturbing, perhaps, is the use of symbols such as the national flag and the Indian armed forces to further this rhetoric of a binary. On his show on Times Now, Arnab Goswami used the image of Lance Naik Hanumanthappa Koppad, a solder from the Madras Regiment who had breathed his last after being rescued from an avalanche hit military base in Siachen, to shame and condemn Umar Khalid, the guest on his show representing the protestors. Recently, the death of Captain Pawan Kumar, himself a graduate of JNU was used to draw comparisons between the patriotic soldier dying for his nation and the deviant dissident, plotting to destroy it. The fault lines are as clear as ever, with anybody attempting to speak up against the repressive sedition law or protest the heavy handedness of the government being termed, in addition of the usual tags of sickular and communist, as anti-national.
Why this is particularly powerful is also why it is particularly disturbing. In a nation as diverse as India, perhaps the easiest way to orchestrate a massive outrage against someone is to paint them as being opposed to the one thing that all of us hold in common – nationhood. By striking at that one emotive chord across millions, the government has, to a large extent, succeeded in blinding the populace with rage so as to leave it unable and unwilling to observe, question or analyse. And this is not a new tactic by any measure. Nazi Germany, widely regarded as one of the most evil empires in history, was based on a strong foundation of patriotism and nationalism. Any and all opponents of the Nazi Party were termed as enemies of the nation, and all they despised became parasites sucking the life out of the Fatherland that so many Germans adored. And so, a civilian population enabled and facilitated the mass slaughter of communists, Jews, Roma gypsies and the disabled.
And now, one hears similar rhetoric in the context of the entire ‘anti-national’ row. Anupam Kher, veteran actor and a vociferous supporter of the current regime, recently tweeted a dialogue from his movie A Wednesday, which likened the current crackdown on dissent as ‘pest control’ against ‘cockroaches, insects and vermin’. By tapping into vitriolic hatred against those perceived as ‘traitors’, the regime has shown it’s worrying efficiency in propaganda, as well as its willingness to use it against its own citizens.
Those willing to look beyond the smokescreen will notice that what have been described as anti-national activities are nothing more than activities opposed to the ideological and political interests of the current government. As more and more details from the JNU sedition case are revealed, the government’s case looks shakier and shakier. The footage of the alleged sloganeering, played on loop on television networks and used as evidence by the Delhi Police, has been revealed to have been doctored. Questions have been raised regarding the Delhi Police’s unwillingness to stop the brutal assault of Kanhaiya Kumar, ostensibly under their protection, at the hands of a gang of overzealously patriotic lawyers at the Patiala House Court complex. As such, a clear picture of the victimization and brutalisation of university students at the hands of the government emerges.
India’s self-declared protectors forget, however, certain basic ideas that underlie the foundation of our independent nation. Casting off the yoke of colonialism after two centuries, it was solemnly resolved that this would be a nation based on freedom, equality and democracy, with the rights of human beings being enshrined as fundamental and vital to our very existence in society. An essential component of these ideas is the ability of individuals to disagree, and express such disagreement, about the direction in which the nation should steer itself. It is not only a right, some would argue, but the duty of the conscientious citizen to oppose those in power when their policies begin to trample on the very ideas they ostensibly seek to uphold and propagate. The freedom of expression, the ability to speak one’s mind without fear of persecution at the hand of the state, is an essential right of the democratic citizen, for without open discourse, policy making through the principle of universal adult franchise would be nothing but a meaningless farce. And universities have long been a bastion of outspoken criticism of state excesses, not only in India, but all over the world. As centres of learning, they foster a rich culture of discourse, with students exposed not only to the facts and figures of their chosen subjects, but also to entirely new ways of thinking and looking at the world. Thus, to react with brutal force and embark upon a propaganda campaign to brand these university students does nothing but betray this government’s attitude towards dissent.
It is vital for us to realise, as citizens, that a nation stands for far more than its flag or national anthem. Although these are important symbols to rally around and celebrate together, it is important to remember that they are just that – symbols. Does any rational individual really believe that any soldier dies fighting for a flag – a painted piece of silk? It the idea the flag represents – a free nation where men and women can live their lives as they would choose, free from oppression, injustice and undue interference, with the liberty to express themselves and their beliefs. The words Justice, Liberty, Equality and Fraternity are not merely platitudes, but a shared vision for the society we sought to build when we became independent. As one looks around, it isn’t difficult to see how far we are from that promise. It becomes worth asking oneself, then, who are the true patriots?
Are they those who proudly pin the tricolour to their chest as they assault an individual being brought to court? Or is it those who continue to weather the storm and stand up for these very values against a government that considers them pests and uses every measure they can to silence them?