Is India at an inflection point?

It is important to take the time out to address social cohesion and sustain the social compact that India has striven to maintain since Independence. Instead, the government’s use of the sedition law in JNU has been a blunder, which is widening the gulf between different segments of society.

February 29, 2016 01:25 am | Updated December 04, 2021 11:03 pm IST

The first two decades of the 21st century have witnessed a great deal of unrest and turbulence in several countries across the globe, notably in West Asia. India was spared the kind of protests that marked the “Arab Awakening”, though it did confront a number of disparate protests, which cumulatively reflected a high level of discontent. Individual incidents had even then begun to spark off violent reactions.

However, it is the metastasising nature of recent agitations and protests, involving almost every segment of the population, students, peasants and the disaffected — alongside the persistent provocation from Pakistan — which is resulting in new paradigms of thought and behaviour. Whether they relate to terrorist attacks by Pakistan-based outfits such as the Jaish-e-Mohammad and the Lashkar-e-Taiba, agitations based on identity, ideology, idea-logy politics, human values and dignity, or unstructured movements dictated by rage or other considerations, they all involve a level of public mobilisation and spectacle different from what had been seen in the past.

Also read: >Why our universities are in ferment

Need for new strategies It is evident that we have entered a new era but are probably not yet aware of its implications. They cannot, hence, be dealt with in the same manner as in the past, or by employing antiquated methods and resorting to shopworn rhetoric. Understanding the true meaning of real-time information gleaned from “data-in-motion” (such as phone calls or chat services) or from access to “data-at-rest” (text messages and videos stored in computers and cell phones) is critically important today.

For instance, almost fortnightly, or at shorter intervals, Pakistan-based terrorist outfits are carrying out assaults with still greater military precision than previously, inflicting greater casualties among both civilians and armed force personnel, all the while holding up the country to ridicule as the Indian Establishment seeks opportunities to revive anti-terror talks. Gurdaspur, Pathankot and now Pampore are hardly isolated incidents and reflect elements of a grand strategy. Only the most myopic of leaders can fail to see the writing on the wall and heed the message coming out of Pakistan. A nation fully conversant with what is taking place can hardly be misled into ignoring the truth and reality.

At another level, India is internally undergoing a baptism through fire. This has been brought on by a conflict between extremes — the politics of the Right Wing and the Left Wing; a confrontation between anti-national and irredentist elements on the one hand, and so called nationalist and identity-based groups on the other; and increasing militancy on the part of the so-called excluded and marginalised segments in pursuit of their rights. The “quota agitation” by the Jat community in Haryana exemplifies the dangers inherent in the increasing stratification of Indian society.

Also read: >Sedition and the government

Following the Patidars in Gujarat and the Jats in Haryana, the Marathas in Maharashtra and the Rajputs in Rajasthan are threatening to agitate. In almost every State across the country, several among the more “backward” are about to throw their hat into the ring seeking among the Other Backward Class quotas. Finally the worst fears about the end result of the Mandal Commission recommendations appear to be coming true.

The Centre’s succumbing to the violence perpetuated by Haryana Jats could not have come at a more inopportune moment. The ineptitude displayed in handling the agitation, and the spectacle of the Centre dispatching several Army columns to quell a law and order situation in an hinterland State, tends to evoke comparisons with the “Arab Spring”.

Memories of 1968 The question as to whether India is today at an inflection point is, however, more relevant in the context of the present unrest among students of the nation’s prestigious universities. Equating the students’ unrest in Jawaharlal Nehru University and Hyderabad and Jadavpur Universities and in several of the Indian Institutes of Technology with the Paris and Nanterre students’ uprising in 1968 may sound farfetched, but there are some eerie similarities. In both cases, agitating students have used metaphors to demonstrate their opposition to the existing order. Che Guevara and Ho Chi Minh were names chosen by the Paris and Nanterre students to ventilate their anger against the Fifth Republic, knowing full well that it would anger the authorities.

In current agitations across Indian universities, the names Afzal Guru and Yakub Memon mean little to most students, but they are intended to be symbols of opposition to the Establishment. Anti-national rhetoric is often the fuel that feeds demonstrations against the existing order of things. Today, the Left in India has no icon around whom they can rally students. They have, hence, chosen to join forces with other anti-Establishment groups, for whom the more outrageous the claim, the more likely it is to rile those in authority. This has little to do with “insiders” and “outsiders”.

Also read: >State overreach on the campus

Building a just society It is vitally important for the authorities, hence, to discern the real meaning behind many of the actions taking place in our universities and avoid any overreaction. “Building a just society by just means” — a quote from former Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru — has become crucially important in many campuses at this juncture. Nothing could be more poignant in this respect than the tragic suicide of Rohith Vemula, the Hyderabad Central University PhD student, who in his suicide note blamed his birth as “a fatal accident”. It gave an impression of the prevalence of a “dark state” mindset among those who exercise power and authority.

What cannot be ignored is that with ubiquitous access to interconnected mobile devices and other advanced communication systems, events are getting transformed in a way that could hardly be envisaged even a couple of years ago. In this milieu, failure to anticipate the intensity of anger that prevails on a particular occasion, judge the unintended consequences of a growing groundswell of protest against an incident that has captured public imagination and recognise that the diffusion of power between the state on the one hand, and people on the streets or students in campuses on the other, has become far more consequential than at any time previously — and it can have grave consequences.

Also read: >What it means to be 'national'

What is tragic is that in an increasingly acrimonious and polarised atmosphere, political elements of all hues are by their actions further aggravating the situation. The public discourse has thus become that much more acrimonious and polarised. The Prime Minister’s statement about “conspiracies” directed against him and his government hardly helps. It only brings back memories of other Indian Prime Ministers placed in difficult situations coming up with similar conspiracy theories. Employing the provision for sedition in JNU, instead of taking time out to address social cohesion and sustain the social compact that India has striven to maintain since Independence, has been a blunder, widening the gulf between different segments of society. What is most needed today is an activist state that is focussed on preserving social cohesion and a sense of optimism to protect and enlarge the dignity of every human.

At this critical juncture, it is unfortunate that the vice chancellors of central universities have hardly covered themselves with glory. Most universities today are guilty of the charge that they are out of touch with Young India, even as student activism has reached a tipping point. Vice chancellors find themselves inadequately equipped to grapple with problems facing their universities such as social exclusion, identity conflicts, the subaltern and minority syndrome, unchecked dissent, etc. Most also lack the authority (and personality) to not only deal with students’ protests, but even determine when to call for outside support, including the police, before the situation goes out of control.

Finally, what is least required at this moment is for students across universities to be lectured on the virtues of nationalism from all and sundry. What is specifically needed are methods to deal with the current situation so as to prevent it from getting out of hand. Leaving matters to be dealt with by the police after the horse has bolted, and then blame the police for inadequacy is, however, neither a method nor the means.

(M.K. Narayanan is a former National Security Adviser and former Governor of West Bengal.)

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