Nationalism redefined

The new nationalism

Print edition : March 18, 2016

Sadhvi Prachi, barred from entering JNU campus, giving an interview to the media at the campus entrance. Photo: R.V. Moorthy

Nationhood under the BJP government, conflated with Hinduism, is defined more by what it excludes than what it includes. Anything that this regimented nationalism cannot understand, like difference and dissent, becomes anti-national.

It now emerges from a sting investigation carried out by India Today that the lawyers who set upon Kanhaiya Kumar, president of the JNU Students Union while he was in police custody and was being produced in the Patiala House courts, had brazenly conspired to do so; that it was pre-planned and orchestrated; that they beat him up with the connivance of the police who were there on the spot; that they brought in outsiders into the court to help carry out the attack. There is, of course, the off-chance that these lumpen lawyers were bragging rather fancifully about their exploits and what they will do—including throw petrol bombs, get arrested and lodged in the same jail cell as Kanhaiya Kumar so that they can assault him there—because they want to come across as ones whose nationalism is irrepressible and knows no bounds, least of all the bounds of the law they supposedly practise.

It now emerges, from what looks like the original soundtrack of the video recording of his speech at the university circulating in social media, that Kanhaiya Kumar said nothing anti-national, nothing about the break-up or destruction of India, in it; that his hortatory speech was a call for a struggle for freedom from social, economic and religious oppression; that the controversial anti-national soundtrack was cosmetically superimposed, in a shabby post-production job, on this visual of his sloganeering.

It now emerges that the other five students who have been arrested or against whom arrest warrants have been issued may have done or said nothing anti-national either. On the contrary, we have seen and heard at least three of them forcefully ridicule the manufactured and laboured doubts about their patriotism. They come across refreshingly clear, through the noxious atmosphere of suspicion and hate whipped up over these several days, that their love for their country is not for anyone else to decide or arbitrate upon under the looming shadow of some ill-conceived and distorted notion of nationalism. “My name is Umar Khalid, but I am not a terrorist” is the poignant and ironic response, as if to an identity roll call, of the one most maligned and witch-hunted in the group. As if a name like that automatically calls for a clarification like that.

But the irony and the poignancy are lost on the pseudo-nationalist saffron brigade and its blind cheerleaders and followers who do not pause in their tracks to consider that they may have got it all wrong. For them, understandably, it would be a tragedy, a lost opportunity, if they have got it all wrong. But then, as they bash on regardless, other ironies surface which they will probably wish did not.

RSS’ rejection of the national flag

We are suddenly and starkly reminded that it was the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) that rejected the tricolour when it was adopted as the national flag of Independent India. Its organ, Organiser, ran a campaign against the flag from the very outset and in its issue of August 14, 1947, resorted to mumbo jumbo to reject it: “The people who have come to power by the kick of fate may give in our hands the tricolour but it will never be respected and owned by Hindus. The word three is in itself an evil, and a flag having three colours will certainly produce a very bad psychological effect and is injurious to a country.” There were reports of the RSS insulting and defiling the flag soon after the assassination of Gandhiji. In a speech on February 24, 1948, Nehru deplored it: “At some places members of the RSS dishonoured the national flag. They know that by disgracing the flag they are proving themselves as traitors.”

We cannot help noticing that the RSS, which cannot live down its non-participation in the freedom movement, has also been fighting shy of hoisting the national flag ever since. Its saffron dhwaj, not the tricolour, was the Sanghi dream of the national flag. It would not hoist the tricolour in its headquarters in Nagpur for 52 years. The green bottom band of the tricolour which, in a demographic, cultural and religious reading, represents the Muslims of India, just as the saffron top band represents the Hindus (Gandhiji described the Hindu and the Muslim as the two luscious eyes of India), made the RSS see red. Piqued by the saffron establishment’s abnegation of the national flag, three activists of a local outfit called Rashtrapremi Yuva Dal forced their way into the RSS premises in Nagpur on Republic Day in 2001 and forcibly hoisted the tricolour there. They were arrested and cases filed against them, from which they were discharged only 12 years later.

With this dubious track record, the RSS and its legatees in power hardly have any locus standi to issue a fiat to madrasas to hoist the national flag on Republic Day or coerce universities (although technically, for public consumption, it’s a voluntary decision by the Vice-Chancellors who met at the behest of, and with, the Human Resource Development Minister Smriti Irani) to display what seems tantamount to public proof and display of their nationalism by prominently flying the national flag on their premises. The prestige of the national flag is, arguably, problematised, not enhanced by such shallow, and, in this case, hypocritical flag zealotry. It is a by-now-familiar Hindutva attempt to appropriate and jingo-ise a national symbol for which it had no love lost just until the other day. Just as Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel and Gandhi and Ambedkar are snatched from their natural lineages and metamorphosed into the new-found icons in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government-speak.

In the thick of the high-strung debates on such flag tokenism, the scant regard saffron organisations have for the symbols of the Indian state was demonstrated on February 23 in a forced flag march, so to speak, at a Shivaji Jayanti celebration at Latur in Maharashtra, when members of a right-wing group roughed up an Assistant Sub-Inspector of Police in uniform, Yunus Sheikh, forced him to hold their saffron flag and march with them chanting “Jai Bhavani, Jai Shivaji”. This is plainly a shocking affront and insult to the state, but not if Bhavani and Shivaji and Motherland and Nation are mutually replaceable ideas or imaginaries, as they seem to become in the Hindu-nation conflation.

The emblems of the Indian state, of the Republic, are dragged into the BJP’s narrow and sectarian construct of Hinduism as nationalism. In the process, not only is a lofty and dynamic religion of stunning sweep and latitude cribbed, straitjacketed, homogenised and ossified, but nationhood is redefined in terms of what it excludes rather than all that it should include. Anything said against this reinvented, regimented and reductive nationalism becomes anti-national, with all that it implies, including treason and sedition. This is a flawed and dangerous variety of nationalism, a trap, a nationalism determined and enforced on the street, which has nothing to do with the finer, liberating, empowering and all-embracing idea of belonging and bonding that Indians know and feel, without the need for anyone’s prescription or prompting, as patriotism.

Trial by media

When a particularly self-indignant and self-righteous anchor on a particular TV news show declaims (he always declaims, never speaks reasonably or converses intelligibly) that our nationalism is in peril because a few persons (“unknown persons” was how the police described them because they did not know who they were looking for) lobbed some despicably wayward slogans into a meeting organised by students in JNU, he is, wittingly or unwittingly, buying into this stub nationalism which, of late, is invoked ever so frequently to put any heterodoxy, political or religious, in its place. He sets himself up on a preening, morally flimsy high ground from where everything looks, or is made to look, alarming and conspiratorial. Thus, the dissonant voices at the meeting on Afzal Guru’s hanging take on ominous overtones in this framework set by a section of the media. It does not matter that well before this and well outside the campus, individuals and groups in civil society, including respected lawyers and former judges, have wondered whether it may not have been a miscarriage of justice. It does not matter that the BJP’s ally in Kashmir, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), is categorical that it was so. Slogans of the kind heard at the JNU meeting, threatening the break-up of India and worse have been, and continue to be, mouthed on a daily basis by cadres of different political parties in Kashmir. Video footage has now emerged of outsiders, not students, shouting these slogans at the university event. But our Don Quixote of an anchor would wait for no investigation or proof and was already declaring and waging war against the students, as if he was in no doubt that they were all set to wage war against the state. It would be funny if were not so pathetic to see one of them, who else but Umar Khalid, being bullied and bulldozed and having his microphone turned off so that he was reduced to just facial expressions, while the prosecuting anchor went on and on about his guilt, which in any case seemed a foregone conclusion.

It was like a parody of Stalin’s show trials in Moscow in the 1930s, where the grand prosecutor Andrey Vyshinsky would fulminate at length against the imagined enemies of communism (because Stalin felt threatened by them), and the victims of his diatribe were just inert presences in the courtroom without any say in the matter. Except that, here, hapless Umar seemed to be in the dock not for being against communists, but for being one himself (of an ultra brand, certifies the prosecutor). In the absence of any proof—and anything by way of the spoken word by him in the so-called discussion—about what his role at the contentious JNU meeting might have been, his ideology was all there was to go by, and all that was necessary really for this anchor-prosecutor, to incriminate him. If that was not enough, his other identity markers provided sufficient circumstantial evidence. And if there was any vestige of sympathy for him as a student, it was undone by calling him half-literate somewhere along the way.

It took a subsequent talk by Umar Khalid at JNU, which appeared on social media, to figure out that he was more than literate, that he was, if anything, more articulate and rational than the redoubtable anchor who did not let him speak (maybe that was why he was not allowed to in the first place), that he was a thinking and intelligent young scholar, that he was sad for being baselessly and unjustly targeted but without rancour over it, that he loved his country and that he was not cowed down by the intimidation of the inimical media or the political forces of the Right trying to frame him.

Pitting army against students

What is worse and downright petty, even dangerous, is dragging the prestige of the army into this unsavoury, politicised trial by media. The soldier is pitted against the student. The sacrifices made by the soldier in the formidably inhospitable climate of Siachen, or fighting terrorists in Kashmir, or enemy forces at the border are undone or betrayed, so goes the charge, by disaffection against the state fomented by students on the university campus. This, apart from being patently false and unnecessarily incendiary, trivialises the martyrdom of our soldiers.

The soldier stands vigil, fights, kills, dies, not for narrow cultural and partisan nationalisms, not just to safeguard the geographical territory that constitutes the national boundaries, but, more importantly and ultimately, for the values of democracy and freedom enshrined in our Constitution and that uniquely define this nation. It is belittling the Indian soldier, it is making a mockery of his noble calling, to suggest that the exercise of his duty requires us to abridge our democracy, that the soldier and the citizen pursue different democratic ideals. We have various kinds of stunted and qualified democracies all around us, in Pakistan, in Singapore or Malaysia, in Indonesia, in Thailand, where speaking against the king or the state or the army can have disastrous consequences for the citizen.

What makes us different and better than them is precisely the free and freewheeling nature of our democracy; that our citizens do not have to look over their shoulders in fear as they speak their minds on issues of personal or public concern. Our understanding of a strong state is not a weak or vulnerable citizenry. Our understanding of strong journalism should be that which empowers the citizen against the power of the state, not one that adds to the clout of the state and paves the way for transgressions on the liberties of the citizen.

The United States fights so many wars abroad which have quickly become unpopular both at home and across the world. Their soldiers die in these conflicts and when the body bags begin to arrive home, the war turns sour. Intellectuals, students, politicians, journalists and a cross section of citizenry may criticise these wars but are not set up as anti-national or against the armed forces because of that. They fight against the politics of war and for that of peace.

That sense of the need for politics to pave the way for peace, not glorify war and martyrdom, comes across when Dev Raj, the father of Captain Tushar Mahajan, who laid his life down fighting terrorists at Pampore in Kashmir just a few days back, hopes that his son’s death will not be in vain and that politicians would make “things right”. “How many children will attain martyrdom?” he wonders, reflecting on the death of the other officer, Captain Pawan Kumar, in the same operation. “When will our politicians realise this?”

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