The current strategy of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is to mount relentless rhetorical attacks on the “anti” in anti-national while leaving the “nation” in national carefully empty. It was showcased in Parliament by Human Resource Development >Minister Smriti Irani in her enactment of what a popular film song once referred to as “emosanal atyachar”. But when she said, “I am not certifying your idea of India but do not demean mine”, Ms. Irani was being unduly modest because she was actually doing much more than “not certifying” the idea of India — she was evacuating it. Juxtaposed against the silent emptiness of this idea was the eloquent fullness of her righteous rage against those who would demean it. This clever tactic captured the moral high ground by framing the motion to be debated as “insults to the nation cannot be tolerated”, thus trapping opponents in defensive positions on the swampy terrain of insults by denying them a foothold on any firm conception of the nation. But the ploy worked only as long as the idea of India was left undefined. She was under fire the moment she tried to label Mahishasura worship as anti-national, because this defined the nation as exclusively limited to Durga worshippers, a specific definition that was immediately challenged.
Emotion over reason Despite being an intangible idea, the nation is quite real because it is a shared idea. Symbols of nationhood are important for this sharing to be reliably reproduced, which is why we have familiar aids to memory like maps, flags, or the figure of Mother India. National symbols are extremely powerful because they connect to compressed reservoirs of intense emotion.
That is why publicly invoking these symbols has to be an act of responsible citizenship and not self-serving demagoguery, but the difference can be hard to tell. The problem with emotive symbols is that though they can multiply the force of arguments, they cannot replace the arguments themselves. All persuasion harnesses symbols but principled persuasion must also provide arguments that can be rationally debated.
The BJP strategy is a cynical ploy to maximise the emotive impact of symbols while refusing reasoned argument. It is cynical in its unfair fixation on a real or imagined “anti” without allowing the accused the space to speak of the conception of nation that informs the allegedly “anti-national” act. The shameless resort to a partisan use of state power to terrorise, silence and break opponents makes this cynicism dangerous. How else can one explain why lawyers who repeatedly indulged in violent assaults on court premises, or journalists who wantonly incited violence based on fake evidence are not in jail — but Kanhaiya Kumar, Umar Khalid and Anirban Bhattacharya are?
To be fair, during the past two decades the nation idea has been under siege globally, and not only in India. When it first came into its own in the nineteenth century, the nation seemed to define a common boundary for cultural belonging, economic interdependence, and political accountability. In the era of globalisation, the cultural, economic and political dimensions of the nation have diverged, thus undermining the sovereignty of the idea itself. In India, these processes began to take effect from the 1980s, long before the dominance of the BJP.
Weapon of mass distraction Against this background, Narendra Modi’s election campaign emphasised inclusive development — sabka saath, sabka vikas — with Hindutva as a side show. Unfortunately, until now the Modi regime has been unable to deliver on virtually all of its promises on the economic front — it remains to be seen whether the 2016 Budget will effect a welcome change of direction. The sudden deepening of inequalities has fuelled frustrations among the very groups that were its most enthusiastic supporters, such as Patidars, Jats or the urban middle classes.
Historically, regimes unable to provide bread have had to stage circuses of one kind or another to retain their credibility. These have taken the form of highly publicised programmes and campaigns with little or no real content, like Swachh Bharat Abhiyan or Beti Bachao Beti Padhao. Because of these economic setbacks, the cultural front has had to bear a heavier burden. There has been a marked escalation in communal tensions, with various “fringe” outfits and individuals taking on a central role. The characteristic form of these events is a claimed insult to Hindu sentiment or “Indian culture”. Why do these campaigns invariably take a negative form, from the attempts to convert Valentine’s Day into Parents’ Day or Christmas into Good Governance Day, through the beef ban, right up to the Ayodhya Ram Mandir campaign? Is it really impossible to become a good Hindu today without opposing someone or something else?
The changing campus It is in this context that we need to place the quiet revolution in higher education that has taken place over the past two decades. Today, in most non-technical institutions of higher learning women equal or exceed male students in numbers. After the 93rd constitutional amendment extended reservations, the caste (and class) composition of elite universities has been transformed. While Muslims remain under-represented, most others have gained access, making our universities the only public spaces in contemporary India where almost all groups (barring the poorest) can meet and mingle in a relatively egalitarian setting. This newly democratised site is proving to be a massive source of anxiety and resentment for the current regime. Campuses like those of the University of Hyderabad or Jawaharlal Nehru University are seen as particularly dangerous because they are spaces where Dalits are not only assertive but are making common cause with other marginalised groups including Muslims.
Hence the vicious campaign against radical students and campuses, and the relentless repetition of the charge of being “anti-national”. The bitter irony here is that while the accused have been describing the India — and, as with Rohith Vemula, the world — that they stand for in passionate detail, the accusers have offered only the thinnest and emptiest of descriptions. Nothing illustrates this better than the bizarre proposal to hoist gigantic national flags in universities. Even more telling is the plan to showcase tanks and artillery on campuses in the hope that they will exude patriotism and provide immunity against the dreaded disease of critical thinking.
Whether it is sent intentionally or subconsciously, the message is sinister. The university and the army are at opposite ends of the state apparatus, one representing the nation’s desire to nurture critical perspectives and innovative thinking that will strengthen its ability to respond to change, the other representing the might of the state to be deployed after all hope of peaceful resolution is lost. By invoking the arm of the state that is the last resort of brute force in defence of the nation, is the government implying that it thinks of universities as enemy territory that must be conquered by force?
Critiquing old meanings of the nation, striving to give it new meanings, and engaging in intense debate with fellow citizens about the merits of alternative visions is the very stuff of democratic politics. But obsessively attacking something as anti-national while blocking all attempts to specify the meaning of the nation is “playing politics”, which is precisely what Ms. Irani was doing, even as she accused her opponents of doing it.
(Satish Deshpande teaches sociology at Delhi University.
Mary E. John is with the Centre for Women’s Development Studies, Delhi. Views expressed here are personal.)