Who is an anti-national?

For both Rohith Vemula and Kanhaiya Kumar, nationalism was about the welfare of the Indian people over that of the Indian state. This political vision made them threats in the eyes of goonda nationalists

Updated - December 04, 2021 11:34 pm IST

Published - February 17, 2016 02:11 am IST

“According to the nationalist taxonomy of the Sangh Parivar, many sections of society are anti-nationals.” Picture shows students at JNU. — PHOTO: PTI

“According to the nationalist taxonomy of the Sangh Parivar, many sections of society are anti-nationals.” Picture shows students at JNU. — PHOTO: PTI

In the rest of the world, history repeats itself first as tragedy and second as farce. In 21st century India, history repeats itself first as farce, and second on prime time.

Can a bunch of hysterical TV anchors really fool a nation into believing that the brightest students of one of its best universities are “anti-nationals” and their thuggish persecutors, “nationalists”? Can India’s famed diversity — of intelligence levels, if nothing else — save it from falling for the tired old game of witch-hunting anti-nationals? Well, the ruling dispensation seems to be betting against it.

So we’ve heard Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) national president Amit Shah say that the Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi is an anti-national. Why? Because he has been siding with the anti-national students of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). The political intent behind this accusation cannot be misread. But unfortunately for Mr. Shah, the idea of Mr. Gandhi as an anti-national is, at best, amusing; at worst, an affront to the imagination.

Already, according to the nationalist taxonomy of the Sangh Parivar, Adivasis in central India, Dalit students, Left intellectuals, human rights activists, a certain religious minority, anti-nuclear activists, beef eaters, non-haters of Pakistan, inter-religious couples, homosexuals, and labour activists are anti-nationals. If we take into account Monday’s episode of goonda nationalism at Patiala House in New Delhi, we must expand the list to include journalists, people dressed like JNU students, anyone without an identity card, anyone recording goonda nationalists in action, and anyone opposed to the said goonda nationalists.

At this rate, it seems likely that by the time the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) finishes its term, the vast majority of Indians — who are unfortunately still not members of the Sangh Parivar — would have turned into anti-nationals. The only cure for their anti-nationalism being the healing nationalist brutality of an Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) or Bajrang Dal lynch mob, while India’s nationalist police presides over the ceremony, peacefully.

What exactly is goonda nationalism? A goonda nationalist is anyone who arrogates to himself the job of certifying citizens as anti-national. So if I walk up to you on the street, slap you, grab your collar, and brand you an anti-national, I would be a goonda nationalist.

The turn to goonda nationalism

Goonda nationalism is not a new phenomenon. The German historian Arthur Rosenberg, in his book, Fascism as a Mass Movement , refers to two conditions (among others) as prefiguring the rise of fascism: the rise of right-wing nationalism, and an active connivance between the state and identitarian storm troopers. What India has witnessed over the past month, first in Hyderabad Central University (HCU) and now in JNU, is early consolidation of these two conditions for the furtherance of an agenda that we shall not call fascist because, as we’ve been assured repeatedly by eminent Indian liberals, India is too diverse and Indian democracy too resilient for us to use the f-word.

Yet the pattern is too striking to miss. In HCU, the crisis was sparked off by a students’ association expressing sympathy for Yakub Memon, whose execution has been questioned by several legal luminaries. The HCU unit of the ABVP spearheaded the persecution of this student body by branding them as “anti-national”. Its case was taken up by a BJP member of Parliament (MP) Bandaru Dattatreya, who sent a complaint to the Centre. The outcome: a pliant vice-chancellor and a pliable police acted against the students targeted by the ABVP, and the story hit the national headlines with the suicide of Rohith Vemula, a vocal critic of the ABVP and its violent majoritarianism.

In JNU, the crisis was sparked by a group of students organising a protest meeting in support of Afzal Guru, whose execution has been questioned by several legal luminaries. The ABVP spearheaded the persecution of the students involved by branding them as “anti-national”. Its case was taken up by a BJP MP, Maheish Girri, whose complaint led to an FIR being lodged. The outcome: a pliant vice-chancellor and a pliable police acted against the students targeted by the ABVP, and the story hit the national headlines with the arrest of JNU students’ union president Kanhaiya Kumar, a vocal critic of the ABVP and its violent majoritarianism.

The stick used to beat the students in both cases was nationalism — and not just any nationalism but one specifically of the right-wing kind, by which we mean one that is directed against a section of the country’ own citizens whose nationalism is deemed suspect. The stick is wielded, as Rosenberg noted, by the state giving free rein to identitarian storm troopers — in this case, the ABVP.

In the past, the marauding storm troopers have belonged to one or other of the mutant spawn of the hydra-headed Sangh Parivar — the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the Bajrang Dal, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, etc. Sadly, India’s liberal intelligentsia — and what’s called the Left in India is liberal and not left-wing in its politics — has been content to engage in a politics of exposure, trying to shame the perpetrators of repressive violence on the grounds, most famously, of intolerance.

It is therefore worth noting that the crackdown on dissent in the JNU campus, as well as the attack on journalists at Patiala House, comes after much public shaming of the NDA’s unwillingness to uphold the virtue of tolerance. It is as if the months of liberal backlash over intolerance has had zero impact on the NDA. Or perhaps it felt encouraged by the whole “award wapsi” phenomenon. Now that the awards have been returned, petitions have been signed, protests have been marched, and editorials written on the virtues of tolerance, what else can liberal pluralistic India throw at the ruthless advance of a divisive, monocultural nationalism?

Let down by the liberals

India’s bane has been the failure of its self-proclaimed ‘constitutional’ liberals to acknowledge that the forces of Hindutva and economic liberalism (or neo-liberalism) are a package deal. It is this failure that leads them to time and again frame such violence simply as attacks on free speech, while remaining blind to their own complicity in the political economy of repression.

In their heated embrace of economic liberalism, India’s liberal elites looked away as the state either went after or neglected the interests of labourers, the urban poor, the farmers, the landless, the land-poor — the vast majority of whom are from socially marginalised castes. Now they find the state looking away as their own liberal freedoms come under siege by state-endorsed illiberal forces.

Incidentally, both HCU’s Rohith Vemula and JNU’s Kanhaiya Kumar had the clarity of vision to see through such self-serving liberal delusions. Vemula tried to unite the twin minorities of Dalits and Muslims on the HCU campus. Mr. Kumar’s agenda was to unite the student community and informalised labour against the divisive politics of the ABVP inside JNU and neo-liberal economic policies outside. It was this acuity of political vision — owed in no small measure to their underprivileged origins — that made them such threats in the eyes of goonda nationalists.

Cops prowling around a university campus is a terrible cliché — one that’s been enacted hundreds of times in the brief history of the nation state. So is the use of ultra-nationalism to substitute the interests of a repressive state apparatus for the interests of the people it represses. Put another way, is nationalism about the welfare of the Indian people or that of the Indian state, which anyway seems beholden to foreign capital rather than Indian labour?

A more pressing question in the present context being: who has the right to label anyone as anti-national? And how should the average Indian citizen respond to the charge of being an anti-national?

The battle is already lost if one seeks to answer the charge by trying to prove that one is not an anti-national. The correct response, as Mr. Kumar showed in a brilliant speech that went viral on social media, is to go on the offensive, and ask what qualifies goonda nationalists to issue certificates of nationalism, and to question the motives of a government that allows them to do so.


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