In the days since the arrest of Kanhaiya Kumar, the “seditious” and “criminal” President of the Jawaharlal Nehru Students’ Union (JNUSU), his speech delivered hours before his arrest has been well-reported in the print and electronic media. Over and above being a fitting response to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the speech has deep implications for nationalism and democracy: the two dominant concepts in the debate surrounding “anti-national” activity at JNU. At a time when everyone is out to prove their nationalist credentials, Kanhaiya’s speech, when read between the lines, posits not merely an alternative nationalism but an alternative political horizon where nationalism is conditional on democracy.
Swearing by the Constitution of India, Kanhaiya called for a self-reflexive nationalism, geared towards fulfilling the democratic aspirations of common people; a democratic nationalism ready to step back and take stock whenever it fails in the said goal. The vilification of JNU as anti-national stems not from an ignorance of JNU’s voice of democratic nationalism but from an enmity with it. Hindu nationalist forces have historically counter-posed nationalism to democracy in order to silence voices that stand in opposition to it. The present developmental-ist avatar of Hindutva continues to do the same. Kanhaiya rightly said, “Our nationalism does not need a certificate from the Sangh”.
Two key questions have taken centre stage in the nation-wide debate on JNU. Firstly, where did the organizers of the programme against the “institutional murder” of Afzal Guru, cross the line, if at all? In other words, did the organizers utilize the democratic spaces granted by the constitution to indulge in anti-national activities? Secondly, has the police action been excessive? In other words, was it necessary to curb democratic space in order to safeguard national sovereignty, dignity and pride?
Nationalism versus Democracy. That is how the JNU controversy has been framed. The BJP clearly hopes to use nationalism to impose limits on democracy. What it does not realize though is that pitching nationalism against democracy is suicidal for nationalism itself. The popular legitimacy of nationalisms in the sub-content has historically depended on its ability to allow multiple and complex identities to coexist and flower in its vicinity. Nationalism can do so only when backed by an ideological infrastructure. In India’s case, our Constitution provides that infrastructure. The Indian Constitution, despite its many limitations, does uphold dissent as a legitimate democratic practice. Enmity with it, therefore, can be costly to nationalism.
The Indian Constitution was not the product of any single brand of Indian nationalism – that of the Indian National Congress, of the Hindu Mahasabha or of the Communist Party. It was the result of a consensus among different anti-colonial tendencies on giving Indian nationalism a chance to fulfil the democratic aspirations of lower castes and classes, women, tribals, religious minorities and so many unnamed marginal communities. It was therefore apt that Kanhaiya began his speech by swearing allegiance to the Indian constitution and, only through it, to Indian nationalism.
The character of a nationalism is revealed by the heroes that it celebrates. Babasaheb Ambedkar – the maker of the Indian Constitution – is the hero of Kanhaiya’s nationalism. Ambedkar, a leader of Dalits and one of the foremost critics of the Congress once famously asked Mohandas Gandhi, “Do we have a nation, Mahatma?” Ambedkar’s journey from the Mahad Satyagraha to the Chairmanship of the Drafting Committee was a journey from despair to hope in the possibility of a democratic nationalism taking root in India.
Kanhaiya’s invocation of Ambedkar was therefore a reminder of the promise of democracy that the Indian Constitution continues to hold and which Indian nationalism must fulfil in order to keep hold of its ideological infrastructure. Hindutva developmental nationalism, with its neo-liberal economics, authoritarian politics and aggressive Hindutva cultural nationalism seems to be going the opposite way, he argued.
Democratic nationalism would be a process, Ambedkar knew. Himself a leader and product of mass movements, Ambedkar could tell that only assertive struggles of marginalized sections could make democracy work. Indian nationalism, in turn, would be legitimate only so long as it allowed democracy to function, paid heed to the voices of the marginalized and progressively allowed them to own the nationalism as theirs. History has proved Ambedkar right though these histories are seldom included in nationalist historical memories.
To take an example, the cherished linguistic cosmopolitanism of India, to whatever extent it exists, is often remembered as a gift of Nehru or Sardar Patel and not a product of the bloody battles fought by anti-Hindi agitators against the imposition of Hindi on other languages. The fact that Indian nationalism did eventually engage these voices is remembered while the democratic struggles that compelled it to are often forgotten. Nationalism devoid of the memories of democratic struggles is never too far from acting against democracy.
Nationalism reaches its limit the moment it counter-poses itself to democracy. Hindutva developmental nationalism has reached its limit by using nationalism to delegitimize dissenting student voices, the targeting of JNU being the ultimate example. A series of recent student movements, in tandem, have put forward a sharp criticism of its three pillars: neo-liberal economy, authoritarian politics and Hindutva cultural nationalism. The issues raised by them include continued gender and caste discrimination on university campuses and their exacerbation through privatization and Hindutva (#Pinjratod/#JusticeforRohithVemula), saffronization of institutions (#FTII), fund cuts in higher education and privatization of education (#OccupyUGC).
The student voices seriously question the premises that had catapulted the BJP to power – the promise of development and that of social inclusion. Rewind to 6 February 2013. An optimistic Narendra Modi, jubilant after the third successive victory in the Assembly elections in Gujarat, took one of his first steps in an eventually successful bid for power at the Centre. In a historic speech at the Sri Ram College of Commerce (SRCC), he declared that proper utilisation of India’s demographic dividend – of the 65% of population aged below 35 – was going to be India’s greatest challenge in the coming years. He identified two thorns in the process: social divisions and the lack of economic growth.
Can fund cuts in higher education and privatization of education equip Young India to take advantage of economic growth? In other words, is neo-liberal economics at all concerned about economic growth being inclusive? #OccupyUGC has got sticks and rubber bullets in response to these questions. Is development the agenda at all, or is it an alibi for the capture of institutions by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS)? #FTII has got arrests and police harassment in response. Is the BJP serious about challenging social exclusions in line with Modi’s promise, made in the SRCC speech, of ending vote-bank politics? Rothih Vemula got suspension, social boycott and ultimately the hangman’s noose in response.
Instead of responding to the legitimate concerns of Young India the government has selectively used nationalism to repress them. A week after #OccupyUGC started, with JNU students playing a central role in initiating it and connecting it with movements such as #FTII and #PinjraTod, the RSS mouthpiece Panchajanya declared JNU to be a hub of anti-national activity. In sharp contrast Hindu groups celebrating Republic Day as a black day and demanding that the constitution be done away with and Indian declared a Hindu state have been allowed to go scot free. The sinister move to shut down JNU is an attempt to destroy one of the fulcrums of the contemporary Indian student movement.
Challenging social exclusions and vote-bank politics is in fact a far cry. The anti-national tag has been deployed with a vengeance against Dalits and Muslims; Rohith Vemula of the Hyderabad Central University and Syed Umar Khalid of JNU are the prime examples. Rohith Vemula’s narrative of discrimination at the behest of the BJP government came at a time when Narendra Modi, as a backward caste Prime Minister, was being paraded as the ultimate proof of Hindutva’s inclusive nature. The BJP’s response to the episode was unequivocal: Rohith Vemula protested against the hanging of Yakub Memon, he was therefore an anti-national; so were the students supporting his cause.
Significant sections of legal, intellectual and political circles – not all Muslims – have expressed their discomfort regarding the severity of the punishment meted out to Yakub Memon and the circumstances of the judgment, sentencing and execution of Afzal Guru. These hangings have got many democratic-minded citizens concerned about the discrimination against minorities at the hands of the Indian state. Yet when Dalits like Vemula and Muslims like Umar have raised similar concerns they have been victimized. Syed Umar Khalid has been branded a terrorist without giving him any opportunity to explain his views. The police have currently laid siege on Umar and his university.
The BJP’s election promises were false. Its nationalism was never meant to be democratic. So far the BJP had at least pretended to work with democracy; now the façade is gone. JNU is the site of the latest episode in the dangerous battle between democracy and nationalism. The battle is futile, because nationalism has historically never won over democracy. As Kanhaiya said with reference to the abuses that his mother was receiving following the JNU controversy: if Bharat Mata does not include my mother, I have no respect for Bharat Mata. Either both win and produce a democratic nationalism, or both lose leading to uncertain futures. JNU stands for the former and the BJP for the latter. The lines are sharply drawn indeed and it is a fight to the finish.