The emperor’s new nationalism
From Hyderabad to Jawaharlal Nehru University, from the death of Rohith Vemula to the arrest of Kanhaiya Kumar, a clear political agenda by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party can be discerned. At first flush, this is a party whose top leaders — and they include members of the Union Cabinet — are all too willing to pick fights with student leaders and give establishment cover to the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, the Sangh’s student wing. But to see events that have unfolded over the past week only as the government’s battle for ideological control for India’s universities, as real and as condemnable as the effort is, would be to miss the gravity of the moment. In the national capital this week, the Home Minister gave currency to parody accounts of Pakistani terrorists to build a case against JNU students and yet remained visibly unmoved by the obstinate refusal of the city’s police force, which comes under his charge, to arrest “nationalist” lawyers and a party MLA who beat up students on and around court premises. BJP spokespersons affected condemnation of the violence, but breathed outrage about the allegedly seditious sentiments voiced at a meeting on the JNU campus to mark the death anniversary of Afzal Guru, convicted in the 2001 Parliament attack case and hanged in 2013. Such false equivalence has never been seen since Independence, between a Central government virtually refusing to honour the state’s essential compact with its citizenry to enforce the law and the right of Indians to freely express their sentiments, that too in the especially free zone that university campuses are meant to be. And its utterance should frame an anxiety the Prime Minister must respond to, that “nationalism” is being adopted as a political and executive touchstone by which Indians are sought to be divided between those with the ruling dispensation and those not.
Besides taking the fight to the country’s campus that is most identified with Left politics, the JNU development was obviously a chance for the BJP to recover from the excesses of Hyderabad. With it, the party has reframed the ABVP’s adoption of “nationalist” outrage from a Sangh versus Dalit binary to one in which the identities of “anti-nationalists” are insinuated, and not overtly specified. It is, thus, a curious overlay to agitations over the JNU incidents that all Central universities are now required to fly the national flag. It is a dangerous phase in this country’s history when the government at the Centre is seen to be actively assisting in a right-wing effort to shape the discourse on nationalism. This is why the use of Section 124-A of the Indian Penal Code on sedition acquires greater menace than in instances in the past, when it has mostly been used by thin-skinned politicians to fend off critiques. Its application against JNU students and the unchecked violence against students and activists at Delhi’s Patiala House courts have sent out a message that the rule of law could be enforced selectively. If Prime Minister Narendra Modi differs from this dark reading of events, he needs to speak up.