The arrest of Kanhaiya Kumar and the crackdown on political dissent at JNU suggest that we are living under a government that is both rabidly malign and politically incompetent. It is using nationalism to crush constitutional patriotism, legal tyranny to crush dissent, political power to settle petty scores, and administrative power to destroy institutions. The instigation of this crackdown was the alleged chanting of some anti-national slogans at JNU, and a meeting to mark the death anniversary of Afzal Guru. But the government’s disproportionate response smacks of tyranny of the highest order. It ordered the arrest of Kanhaiya Kumar, whose speech had nothing anti-national about it.
The fury with which the home minister and HRD minister intoned on defending “Mother India” and wiping out anti-national events, suggests several things. This was a political decision taken at the highest levels of government. It represents an open declaration by government that it will not tolerate any dissent. It clearly put on display this government’s imperiously presumptuous claim that it has the monopoly on nationalism. It was meant to be a display of brute force against a speech that was not in any way an immediate instigation to violence. The crackdown was an act designed to revel in ignorance of the law of sedition. Indeed, it was insidious in its remarkable ability to make ignorance the flaming torchbearer of nationalism. The government does not want to just crush dissent; it wants to crush thinking, as its repeated assaults on universities demonstrate.
They want to peddle a patriotism whose condition of possibility is the wiping out of all thought. It is important not to confuse several issues. Some of the students may have been deeply misguided in the beliefs they hold. But a university is the space to debate them: yes, even the hanging of Afzal Guru. But nothing they said amounts to a definition of illegality that should befit a liberal democracy. As a society, we are also losing sight of a basic distinction: the threshold of justification required for using the coercive power of the state is not satisfied merely because someone disagrees. In fact, the critique of what the students were doing has been vitiated because it has resorted to force. It is also important to remember that what is at issue here is not the definition of patriotism, or who is or is not anti-national. Large sections of the media and intelligentsia are gullibly letting the question of nationalism frame the terms of debate. So, even at the risk of hyperbole, it is a moment to assert that being anti-national is not a crime. Indeed, if the definition of nationalism is narrow and pinched-up, if it does not brook serious criticism, if it is aligned with tyranny, if it trades on an anti-intellectual ignorance, and its purpose is to unleash a frenzy of destructive passion, then being anti-national might even be an obligation. Make no mistake: the purpose of such a use of state power is to put all defenders of liberty, all radical critics of the state, on the defensive. Its purpose is to make traitors of all of us.
But besides being malign, the government’s actions are politically stupid. In a narrow sense, the crackdown fulfils the government’s agenda: polarise and confuse the population by constantly debating nationalism; give full rein to the politics of resentment that the government harbours against institutions it has declared “Left.” But it does long-run damage to the government’s credibility in several ways. It gives the opposition exactly the pretext to unite that they need. It is hard to see the government being able to carry much of the country with it, if it constantly uses such vendetta. It will not be a surprise if another parliament session is the casualty of such overreaction. And the opposition would be well within its rights. Dissent is not something to be trifled with. As atrocious as the Congress and Left’s record on freedom of expression is, this is an opportunity for them to signal a new beginning. But they have to learn this lesson. The Congress and the Left have been hiding behind their own self-declared virtue for far too long, to the point where they created and used all the legal instruments of suppression the BJP is deploying with such effect. The politics of dissent will have to be rescued from the politics of opportunism.
The crackdown signals an utter lack of judgment in the government, where ministers manage to manufacture a national crisis out of what were always, at best, minor affectations in student politics. The ABVP’s constantly seeking government interference in university affairs on ideological grounds does not portend well for the future. It has even given all those not on the Left a reason to rally with the “Left.” JNU’s importance to national intellectual life had been waning; the BJP has just resurrected it. Even from the point of view of their own critique of the Left, this is an own goal. It suggests that the BJP is a party that cannot repress its own base instincts, whose petty politics of resentment will always subvert whatever long-term goals it might have. The BJP has still not learnt any lesson from its fate over the last two years. The toleration debate will overshadow everything else it does, not because of some congenital anti-BJP conspiracy: it is because the protection of freedom is the life blood of a democracy. And in this case, it is the BJP that upped the ante. The BJP does not also understand one subtle point: that unless there is real and immediate violence involved, a democracy that cuts “anti-nationals” some slack is a robust democracy. For the fact that even people who push the boundaries of expression are safe makes us all feel safe.
Nothing that the students did poses nearly as much threat to India, as the subversion of freedom and judgement this government represents. The honourable ministers should realise that if this is a debate about nationalism, it is they, rather than JNU, who should be in the dock. They have threatened democracy; that is the most anti-national of all acts.