While the Modi Government has overseen the growth of the country’s economy, India is witnessing a similar growth in fundamentalist nationalism. LINDSAY HUGHES writes
Students from Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), one of India’s more prestigious learning institutions, organised an event on the third anniversary of the hanging of Afzal Guru, a convicted terrorist who was hanged for his role in the attack on the Indian Parliament building in December 2001. They planned to protest the “judicial killing of Afzal Guru and Maqbool Bhat” at the event through art, music and poetry.
Student members of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP or All India Students Council, which is said to be the student wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a right-wing, nationalist organisation that is the parent of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s BJP party) took offence when, as they allege, other students at the gathering shouted anti-India and pro-Pakistan slogans. The ABVP members began a protest of their own and demanded that the organisers of the event be expelled from JNU. Apart from stopping the organisers from attending classes, charges of sedition and criminal conspiracy were brought against them.
The situation is rapidly becoming a clash of ideologies. On the one side are the ABVP members who, true to the policies of the RSS, refuse to countenance any perceived act or sloganeering against the national interest. On the other are the more liberal-minded students who claim that in a secular democracy freedom of thought and speech is vital to its functioning. It is interesting to note that many academic staff have aligned with the liberals. As one student who was involved in organising the event asked, ‘Considering this is a democratic republic, why should dissent be suppressed?’
Matters took a turn for the worse when the powerful Home Minister, Rajnath Singh, spoke to Delhi Police Commissioner, B.S. Bassi, and the President of the JNU Students Union, Kanhaiya Kumar, was arrested on charges of sedition. When Mr Kumar was brought to court on 17 February for his hearing, he was reported to have been beaten up by “people wearing lawyers’ robes” and shouting pro-India slogans. It was also reported that the police escort stood by and did not attempt to protect Kumar. Police Commissioner Bassi, however, denied Kumar had been beaten up and said he had only been jostled by the crowd. That denial was refuted when two lawyers admittedto having beaten Kumar up over the space of three hours when a magazine crew carried out a sting operation.
Other event organisers who had fled were being pursued by the authorities. Police from New Delhi’s south district command and personnel from its anti-terror forces were said to be tracking these students. When five of them re-appeared at the JNU campus, Commissioner Bassi appeared to redefine the law, stating, ‘If they are innocent, they should produce evidence.’ If that is true, it would appear that the officer pays little, if any, regard to the presumption of innocence until found guilty.
More worrying, however, is the general mood among many of those who are charged with upholding the law, including lawyers. By beating up Kumar, these individuals, who are duty-bound to uphold the law and the presumption of innocence, have shown that they take it upon themselves to determine what is and is not just, who is innocent and who guilty without the benefit of procedure and, essentially, place themselves above the very legal edifice they are sworn to uphold. The fact that they shouted pro-India slogans does not indemnify them in any way. In fact, it would appear that they have sullied patriotism in India with their version of justice.
Their actions, however, epitomise the creeping nationalism that is growing in India with the election of the BJP into government. In 2009, for instance, several women in a pub in the city of Mangalore were beaten up by a mob led by Pramod Muthalik, the chief of a right-wing, nationalist organisation, the Sri Rama Sene. In 2014, Muthalik was allowed to campaign for the BJP in the general election even though he was not permitted to run for office. He was, however, inducted into the BJP by the state party President. Muthalik’s reason for beating up women in a pub was said to be to prevent them from bringing dishonour to Indian women.
Here again, Muthalik epitomises creeping nationalism in the world’s largest democracy and by inducting him into the party, the BJP appears to have condoned his actions as being understandable. India’s greatest strength, bar none, has been its historic ability to absorb aspects of other cultures, religions and societies and to integrate those into its own while giving them a decidedly Indian flavour. It withstood invasions from the time of the Greeks as well as invasions that stemmed from Central Asia and from Europe. While it may have been politically and militarily subjugated by the British for two hundred years, India left its own impression upon British culture, its language and thinking. It is, sadly, losing that strength due to the myopia shown by a relative few who cannot discern between India’s strength and their own insecurities. Nationalism could easily be, if allowed to get out of hand, a precursor to social collapse. If students raise “seditious” chants on a university campus, they ought to be defeated in debate and in discussion. Physical might, violence and coercion will never take the place of persuasion.
Lindsay Hughes, Research Analyst, Indian Ocean Research Programme