It was a class unlike any other at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). At around 6 pm, teachers formed a semi-circular human chain around hundreds of students who sat on the ground outside the administrative block in rapt attention, some taking notes. Many also occupied the steps to listen to the speaker. In the centre of them all stood Professor Gopal Guru speaking on ‘What is the nation?’
“This subject is important because some definitions of nation are simply unwarranted judgments. It is a serious problem that we are confused about what a nation is. For some of us, the response comes from emotions… I’m not to be bullied by somebody’s emotional definition of nation. You cannot define nation by forcing somebody to toe a line,” said Guru in his class, which was being live streamed.
Wednesday saw the first of the classes on nationalism that JNU teachers have decided to hold in the campus everyday in the evening, to counter the “anti-national” tag accorded to the students for organising an event on the death anniversary of Parliament attack convict Afzal Guru.
Several well-known academics including Tanika Sarkar, Mridula Mukherjee, Achin Vanaik, Nivedita Menon and Ayesha Kidwai are scheduled to deliver lectures on various aspects of nationalism in the coming days.
With two cameras pointing at him, and many more phone cameras recording his speech, Guru spoke about the difference between nation and the state, and the nation and the government. “There is a tension between nation and state and the latter is becoming much more powerful. For understanding nation, we need to imagine nation in terms of the aspirations it is promising. It is not based on rumour, insecurity or humiliation. Today, there is growing stigmatisation and you can’t build a nation based on stigma,” said Guru.
Amidst claps from both students and teachers, Guru also spoke about the Centre’s Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. “The whole scheme is based on somebody’s labour, because you need the sanitation workers to make Bharat “swachh”. But you see a separation between the social and the economic, with only stress on the latter. If somebody dies in a manhole, you don’t speak. You must connect the social and the economic,” he said.
Talking about symbolism, Guru said there was a choice between following the symbolism of the Chakra or the symbolism of Bharat Mata. “Every spoke of the chakra has to go up and come down at some point. It is more egalitarian in that sense. We need to see which symbolism is better, the Chakra or the symbolism of Mother India,” he added.