The stand-off at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) after some students earlier this month organised a meeting to discuss recent instances of capital punishment has occupied centre stage. The high-handed police action, the >arrest of the elected president of the students’ union, Kanhaiya Kumar , on charges of sedition, and the >battering of students, faculty and the media by a mob of lawyers in Delhi’s Patiala House courts, some with professed sympathies for the Bharatiya Janata Party, represents a new escalation of government overreach and meddling that has undermined the autonomy of institutions of higher education. It also indicates that violence in the name of nationalism is acceptable.
A crackdown on critical thinking The shocking events that have gripped the nation are significantly different from the routine controversies surrounding campus politics in India. This was a deliberate and calculated attack on the democratic culture of JNU — synonymous with sharp critical thinking and vibrant debate.
JNU is India’s finest university. Its contribution to scholarship is well known and widely recognised; its importance to national intellectual life is undeniable. It has produced social scientists who are highly rated the world over. Its former students have been and are in the higher echelons of the government, bureaucracy, policy institutions and media; many vice chancellors, directors of research institutes and chairpersons of important academic institutions are drawn from JNU. The latest in this long list is the newly appointed vice chancellor of Delhi University. Importantly, many of JNU’s students now teaching in hundreds of universities and colleges have made a significant contribution to curricular reform and modern thinking in these institutions. The JNU course structure has served as a model for syllabi of several Central and State universities. So, why this attempt to destroy one of the finest universities at a time when most public universities are not exactly in the best of health and private universities are yet to take off?
That the attack on JNU was part of a larger design by right-wing forces to capture universities to impose a singular political discourse in institutions of higher learning is now obvious. This systematic pattern is clearly visible in the >unrest in the Film and Television Institute of India , University of Hyderabad leading to the >tragic suicide of Rohith Vemula , the >controversy over the Ambedkar-Periyar Study Circle in the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT)-Madras , the >furore over a film screening in IIT-Delhi , and now the >protests in Jadavpur University . The Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) has become the instrument for political deradicalisation of various campuses which are fast emerging as major sites of conflict between the broadly secular left and the Hindu nationalists. This is a plausible explanation of the disquieting developments in JNU in the last two weeks. But the events also indicate that there is a larger agenda at work.
State power to silence dissent
So, what is really the issue here? The key issue is the use of state power to silence dissent and using a narrow nationalist discourse to put all critics of the government on the defensive. The immediate provocation for the police action and the sedition charge was the alleged shouting of anti-India slogans at a public meeting on February 9. The JNU students’ union (JNUSU) has categorically denied any involvement with the controversial event. The identity of those who allegedly chanted the slogans is still unknown. And yet, on February 12, the JNUSU president was picked up by the police for “anti-national” behaviour and for violating the sedition laws without ascertaining specific factual details about who shouted the slogans. This was a political decision taken at the highest levels of government except that in taking this decision, the Home Minister and the Delhi Police seem to have gone by evidence that was later found to be doctored and on the basis of a video supplied by a television channel. Commenting on the crackdown, Pratap Bhanu Mehta notes that the government is using “legal tyranny to crush dissent” and “the arrest was an open declaration by government that it will not tolerate any dissent.” JNU, famous for its culture of radical dissent, was purposely chosen to send a message to all those who disagree with this regime that dissent is unwelcome. This institution had to be contained specifically because it was producing a critique that does not always conform to the national consensus about major issues, be it capitalism, nationalism, caste, class, community or gender.
Also read: >JNU row: What is the outrage all about?
Pushing its nationalist project
The crackdown on JNU and the arrest of Mr. Kumar on sedition charges is not surprising; it is in keeping with the hyper-nationalism promoted by the right wing. It testifies to the Right’s insistence on changing the public discourse in the country and ensuring its world view becomes India’s as well. It betrays an intention to create an atmosphere of general fear among students and teachers and scare those who do not agree with the government’s cultural project. At a time when the Modi government has not been able to deliver on the economic front, it is consistently finding ways to aggravate polarisation. For now, it is doing this by branding everyone who disagrees with it as anti-national. However, the issue here is not nationalism or patriotism, or who is or is not anti-national.
Rather, the BJP is using the crisis produced by its botched-up handling of the JNU events to widen and polarise public opinion across the country around its nationalist project. Modern India was formed in 1947 on the basis of a broader concept of non-ethnic, civic nationalism. By adopting this nationalism, India intended to set itself apart from Pakistan — which effectively committed itself to being a state for Muslims. The original concept of India as a nation based on civic rather than ethnic identity is being redefined sharply by the BJP’s rise, with much greater political space for the affirmation of Hindu identity, which according to its advocates cannot be separated from Indian nationhood even as this undermines secularism, one of the pillars of Indian democracy since Independence.
The original concept of India as a nation based on civic rather than ethnic identity is being redefined sharply by the BJP’s rise, with much greater political space for the affirmation of Hindu identity.
Constructing JNU as a space for anti-national thinking is crucial for it gives this project a famous address and a justification to step in to show its constituency that it can eradicate such anti-national people. They are also trying to use it as a springboard for the campaign to redefine nationalism. The rhetoric of ultranationalism, they believe, resonates strongly with its core base even though there is little evidence to suggest that it has a wider appeal. Comparing the impact of the notion of the national/anti-national during the Emergency and now, historian Gyan Prakash points out: “Like now, the Emergency regime also labelled dissent as anti-national, but it carried no weight with the public at large.” Nonetheless, sections of the media have been giving a helping hand to this phoney enterprise by letting the question of nationalism frame the terms of debate to polarise and confuse the population by constantly debating nationalism when the issue is the foundational right to dissent in a democracy. Smriti Irani, Minister of Human Resource Development, introduced Bharat Mata into this discourse. Thereafter, if this is a debate about nationalism, then the issue is not just any nationalism but one specifically of the right-wing kind, by which we mean a narrow nationalism rather than an inclusive and capacious one — a category of exclusion that regularly suspects a section of its own citizens.
Mr. Kumar had reminded his audience in his speech a day before his arrest that the forces of “Hindu India” now most vociferous in laying claim to true patriotism were not only absent in the freedom struggle but were often collaborating with the British. This puts in perspective the shape of the struggle between those who would lay claim to India as a democratic, heterogeneous, inclusive and potentially egalitarian national project, and those for whom nationalism is principally an aggressive religious assertion and unbridled pursuit of growth, where neither violence nor widening inequality matters.
Following the arrest of Mr. Kumar, the Modi government finds itself facing huge protests from the liberal-left and progressive opinion within and outside JNU. The police crackdown has drawn criticism worldwide from universities and academics. It has succeeded in bringing together a range of intellectual and political forces which fear threats to the exercise of their democratic rights. In particular, JNU has shown that it has the ability and the willingness to put up stiff and broad-based resistance to the extraordinary attack on the university. This has set off the largest nationwide protests by students in decades and provoked an equally unrelenting response from supporters of the Modi government who say the actions against students are justified. This face-off between state repression and intellectual freedom may well turn out to be a watershed moment for the country and for this anti-intellectual government too. Far from containing JNU, the debate over dissent and tolerance has got a new lease of life and is likely to overshadow everything else.
Also read: >Why our universities are in ferment
(Zoya Hasan is Emeritus Professor, Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University and currently ICSSR National Fellow, Council for Social Development, New Delhi.)