Expert Speak India Matters
Published on Feb 19, 2016
Politics of student unrest

Whatever be the end result of the ongoing campus row pertaining to Delhi’s famous Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), one thing is certain. The issue is bound to rock and possibly disrupt the Budget session of Parliament. How and for how long would depend on how the Government handles the situation, both inside and outside Parliament. With the Supreme Court taking the mutual sting out of the ‘National Herald case’ trial for the Congress, the larger Opposition now has a new issue to agitate, both inside and outside Parliament. The BJP-NDA Government and Prime Minister Narendra Modi in turn may have already had another episodic issue to divert all blame for mis-governance (as different from non-governance), to beat the Opposition with.

Independent of the impact on parliamentary proceedings, the current JNU unrest has the potential to whip up reactions elsewhere across the student community in the country. It has already done so, particularly in States that are facing Assembly elections later this year. In turn, it has also established the depth of campus politics, and the need for the Government not to treat it with ideological ‘kid-glove’ and expect everyone else to believe in it. Instead, all of this has consequences not just for the future generations in the country, but also for the law and  order situation. In the worst case scenario, it has the potential to damage economic investments and growth as well, which the Modi Government keeps making promises but constantly lament about.

It should be nobody’s case that ‘anti-national’ slogans could be raised anywhere in the country, leave along the premises of the most prestigious institution of higher learning in the country. But it is equally dangerous to introduce an ‘Us vs Them’ element into what essentially should have become a post-facto national discourse, initiated by the Government. Today, the atmosphere for applying the required correctives has been vitiated – and possibly beyond repair, just now.

The reason is not far to seek. After the unruly behaviour of lawyers on the premises of the Madras High Court Benches in Chennai and Madurai, the Supreme Court now has the unfortunate occasion to take note of lawyer behaviour in Delhi’s Patiala House court premises. By extension, the court also has to take cognisance of the police inaction in the national capital, that too in the precincts of a seat of Judiciary. It is thus no more about ‘national honour’, which needs to be protected all the time. Instead, it has boiled down to protecting lives and limbs of citizens. The Delhi Police under the Union Home Ministry seems to have shown the least concern, bordering on silent collusion with the offending lawyers.

‘Intolerance’ debate

The Government up to a point, and the ruling BJP and its Sangh Parivar cannot escape the blame that the previous year’s ‘intolerance’ debate centred on them has flowed over to the campuses just now. Or, as some of them might like to believe/describe, this has at least provided an ideological camouflage to what essentially is an ‘anti-national’ campaign, this one at the behest of anti-India groups in Pakistan. They need to probe inside to acknowledge that they have wantonly created the climate, the climate of permissiveness.

After Team Anna’s campaign created conditions of the kind, but focussed exclusively on the clear concept of corruption in high places, it died down with the advent of Modi Government. Today, they are whipping up similar sentiments themselves, but could well end up reaping the consequences – but of a different kind. It looks as if the present crop of BJP leaders, who were there even earlier, has not introspected yet on the reasons for the party’s poll failure in 2004.

‘Trivialisation’ of nationalism, national priorities and with that, the voter’s knowledge and understanding of issues and priorities cost the Vajpayee leadership, as the party refused to read and accept the voter as a thinking people. The Congress’ rival’s ‘aam aadhmi’ campaign was a post-poll excuse for the media to explain away why their pre-poll predictions failed. ‘Aam aadhmi’ thus became a post-poll commitment for the new government, and not necessarily on which the nation voted out the incumbent BJP-NDA combine.

La affaire intolerance

If the initial charges by Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh that the JNU ‘student-demonstrators’ had links with anti-India terror groups across the border is true, the Centre should have taken the mainline Opposition into confidence. It is the past trivialisation of the ‘beef ban’ issue and other episodes concerning ‘la affaire intolerance’ over the past year in particular that has made the Government as an institution and the ruling party otherwise, suspect in the eyes of the people -– and not only of the Opposition. The nation’s intelligentsia that backed Modi in 2014 polls are an agitated lot, possibly also for not following their instincts at the time. Their hurt and anxieties cannot be trivialised, either.

If nothing else, the reaction to any governmental action of the kind as initiated against the ‘errant’ students became predictable in the minds and eyes of the students and the larger community. The Government leadership should understand that all their support over the past year, including the ‘JNU episode’, come only from the traditional supports in the RSS parent and other fellow-travellers in the Sangh Parivar. Already, the ‘Rohith Vemula suicide issue’ in Hyderabad has stirred campus protests in many places across the country. It has also embarrassed the ruling BJP at the Centre no end. Hence the pre-episode need for the Centre to handle the JNU issue with care and caution.

Yet, the ‘JNU protests’ is neither a stand-alone affair, nor is it an expression and expansion of the ‘intolerance’ debate and the ‘Rohith Vemula issue’, rolled into one. Nor should it be dismissed as an ‘anti-national issue’, and handled exclusively as such. There is a need to punish the guilty, yes, but the malaise runs deeper. It’s more so when it produces unacceptable violence on court premises, for someone to promote himself and his brand of ‘nationalism’. By continuing to maintain stoic silence on such sensitive issues, PM Modi cannot afford self-styled ‘nationalists’ from his Sangh Parivar bandwagon to hold his leadership to ransom before the television media for all the nation to watch and draw their conclusions – and in their drawing rooms.

However, this is not the first time that a government in post-Independence India has thrown the ‘anti-national’ card at the rest. In this case, however, shouting anti-national slogans is unpardonable, however. In her time, pre-emergency Indira Gandhi had taunted the JP movement leaders thus. Her Government even dubbed the (in)famous 1974  railway strike, thus. If it rings a bell, the present-day rulers should hear it, listen to it. After all, Modi and many in his BJP were part and products of the JP movement.

Nor is the JNU campus the only place that such anti-national slogans have been raised in recent months and years. It has been reported from time to time in Jammu & Kashmir. In the otherwise placid southern Tamil Nadu, the Sri Lanka issue in recent years have led to outright condemnation of the State of India, its institutions and symbols in ways that would make JNU sloganeering child’s play.

In the same State, near-similar situations arose over the ‘Koodamkulam nuclear power-plant issue’. The State Government even charged 3,000 unnamed persons for ‘sedition’ under Section 124-A of the Indian Penal Code. It was possibly the highest ever number of persons against whom ‘sedition’ charges had been slapped over any single episode – or, otherwise – even from the days of the freedom movement.

Tamil Nadu, where the later-day ruling Dravidian movement leaders had observed the nation’s Independence as a ‘black day’, has since come a long way, into mainstreaming and integration with the larger national political matrix that the constitutional scheme provided for and absorbed. The anti-Hindi agitation of the Sixties in the State owed to sentiments, exploited also for political reasons.

The JNU row may immediately concern ‘anti-national’ slogan-shouting by a small group of students. It cannot be clubbed with other issues of ‘intolerance’, including anti-beef protests of the Hindutva variety. Those that sympathise with the protestors however are seeing it as a reflection of the ‘intolerance’ campaign – which inevitably it has become after a point.

To brand all in in the JNU as anti-nationals and act accordingly, politically, is a travesty for which the nation might end up paying in more ways than one. This kind of politics may be beneficial for some in short term, but in the long term will certainly be counter-productive.

To this end, erecting tall and heavy posts to fly the national Tricolour on central university campuses across the country may be acknowledged for the gesture that it is, but would not stand for anything more, be it in terms of ‘nationalism’ of whatever variety, or otherwise!

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N. Sathiya Moorthy

N. Sathiya Moorthy

N. Sathiya Moorthy is a policy analyst and commentator based in Chennai.

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