The recent directive from the Indian government to central universities asking them to hoist the country’s tricolour flag seems like forcing patriotism down one’s throat.

JNU teachers and students form a human chain inside the campus in protest against arrest of JNUSU President Kanhaiya Kumar, in New Delhi
JNU teachers and students form a human chain inside the campus in protest against the arrest of student leader Kanhaiya Kumar in New Delhi

A fallout of the recent incidents in one of India’s most prestigious educational institutions, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in New Delhi, the administrative dictum may be best described as “banal patriotism”.

As Sandipan Sharma writes in Firstpost: “Politics of banal patriotism (or nationalism) is easy to practice. It doesn’t require a nuanced debate, a logical discussion, respectable IQ or the courage to face the enemy on the border”.

Banal patriotism “is rooted in imagining an enemy, or, if one already exists, grossly exaggerating its threat and then coming up with an irrational response”.

The so-called enemy here is a JNU student leader, Kanhiya Kumar (now under arrest), who along with some others shouted slogans on the university campus. The slogans criticized the execution in 2013 of Afzal Guru — convicted of attacking India’s parliament in December 2001.

Although Kumar has been saying again and again that he was not part of the slogan shouting group, the canteen incident, according to many, has been blown out of proportion.

To quote Sharma again: “The overblown reaction was a classic case of banal nationalism. Enemies were imagined (all JNU is anti-national); lies were propagated to justify the paranoid response (Pakistani terrorist Hafiz Saeed is behind it), fake accusations were made through doctored videos, photo-shopped images and media lapdogs and a minor incident was passed off as a conspiracy against the nation”.

Lawyers, close to the ruling party in New Delhi, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), went on the rampage on court premises, attacking journalists and even Kumar as he was being produced before a judge. One of the key attackers, a well-known lawyer, was arrested after several days, but immediately released on bail.

But the most disturbing aspect of the whole episode was the determination of politicians and some others to equate something as normal or harmless as student politics with anti-nationalism. The slogans against Guru’s hanging was, at best, anti-political party, anti-government — but by no means anti-state or anti-India. So, it was not seditious, by no stretch of imagination, as the government is projecting the case against Kumar.

And, the best part of it all, Guru was hanged during the previous regime in New Delhi that was headed by the Congress Party! Not the BJP.

And, come on, students politics is a reality the world over, and young men and women have, since time immemorial, rebelled against government policies, have been critical of laws. This did not, and does not make them anti-nationals.  Anti-establishment, yes, but anti-nation, no.

As well-known commentator Swaminathan Aiyar wrote in a column: “You may disagree with these student slogans. But since when have students been a politically correct crowd mouthing patriotic hosannas? In all free societies, students have espoused all sorts of extreme positions, and must be free to do so. That is why they are called free societies”.

He goes on to differentiate between free societies and unfree societies. “Communist China cracked down on Tiananmen Square and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt cracked down on Tahrir Square. But American students were at the very forefront of opposition to the Vietnam War. They rejected the government’s notion of patriotism. Their right to dissent was not questioned even by those who condemned their views”.

There are other interesting examples.  In 1933, Oxford University Union upheld a motion during   a debate that ‘This house will in no circumstances fight for its King and country.’  Britain was shocked, and the students were soundly criticised, but they were never arrested for sedition — as Kumar was.

In a democracy there must be room for differing thoughts and opinions, and India has always prided itself as a robust democracy. Honestly, mere sloganeering should not attract penal punishment. Otherwise, dozens and dozens of men and women who shout to their hearts content at a special corner in London’s Hyde Park would be in jail, accused and pronounced guilty of sedition.

But sadly in India, sedition laws are being now used to jail cartoonists, folk singers and even those who may have just liked a Facebook entry!

As we know, some months ago, a low-caste Hindu Dalit student in Hyderabad Central University, Rohith Vemula, committed suicide when the educational authorities chastised him for taking part in a function to mark the death anniversary of Yakub Memon — convicted of terror in India.

Vemula along with a few other Dalit students were forced to vacate the university hostel, and they were barred from several areas on the campus.

Here again was a clear case of student politics not just misunderstood, but looked upon with paranoia. Surely, the government cannot view students as a threat to the very foundation of a nation like India, whose strength emanates from its gloriously rich history and culture, and a democracy that is uniquely vibrant.

Gautaman Bhaskaran is an author, commentator and movie critic, who has worked with The Statesman in Kolkata and The Hindu in Chennai for 35 years. He now writes for the Hindustan Times, the Gulf Times and The Seoul Times.

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