It is well known that not many Kashmiris are happy with the Indian Union for the way they are treated and due to the wanton human rights abuse that is an everyday reality in Kashmir. In this light, those students who raised slogans declaring Afzal Guru a martyr are not unusual. For that matter, the issue of the travesty of justice or “judicial killing” in Afzal Guru’s case has been raised by many writers and also a former high court judge. In fact, Mehbooba Mufti of the PDP has herself raised this issue and demanded that the body of Afzal Guru be returned to his family. The BJP continues to explore options of forming government in Jammu and Kashmir with the PDP, even as it clamps down on JNU and accuses the JNU students’ union president of sedition.
From openly debating why the Kashmiris’ demand for a plebiscite is legitimate, today, even uttering a doubt on the most brazen of human rights violations committed by security forces could count as anti-national activity. Demanding rule of law and accountability from the police, and armed and paramilitary forces has become sedition. Raising slogans — however objectionable some of them might have been — is now being seen as an act of terror.
Universities have been, perhaps, the last public spaces to assert a right to express and debate, which are utterly indispensable for holding a nation together. The RSS, in its mouthpiece, had not long ago argued that JNU is a bastion of anti-national activities and a hub of terror. What we are witnessing today in JNU is an outcome of that kind of an understanding of a place that is willing to penetrate the political nature of various problems, including the nationality struggles in the Northeast, socio-economic roots of the Maoist insurgency, everyday humiliation suffered by Dalits, wanton neglect and marginalisation of Muslims, sexual harassment of women, and stigmatisation of sexual minorities. Not long ago, demanding reservations for the OBCs and implementing the Mandal Commission report were described as anti-national and, today, the BJP-RSS that had vehemently opposed such demands proudly projects an OBC as its leader.
On the day of the public meeting in JNU on February 13 to protest the police clampdown and demand the release of Kanhaiya Kumar, a handful of ABVP activists were waving black flags and raising slogans against the massive gathering. They were allowed the space to protest. In no small measure, this reflects the spirit that JNU has stood for all these years. A spirit that stands in complete opposition to the way the current political dispensation has handled students, not in JNU alone but in the University of Hyderabad, IIT Madras and FTII. A spirit that refuses to be subsumed under the simple-minded, mediocre nationalism of the current dispensation that wishes away every difference of opinion and perceives it as “Bharat Ma ka apman”.
Nations flourish when they instill a sense of belongingness and meaning to their diversity. Universities play an important role in this by contributing towards extending the inclusive character and democratising social hierarchies. Otherwise, we often end up with “nationalism without a nation”. The death of ideas is also the death of a nation. In fact, the persistent crisis of the present government is one of a lack of imagination and failure to create a new energy that often comes with fresh and innovative ideas in a democracy. Growth is stuck and the government is not willing to innovate new welfare policies that can reinvigorate its social mobilisation. Communal polarisation has failed both in Delhi and Bihar. The only option now seems to be hyperbolic nationalism.
The unwillingness to look for new political strategies is also reflected in the way the dispensation is handling problems in universities. Rohith Vemula’s case was striking in the way the HRD ministry got itself engulfed in a crisis that became cynical to the point of denying Rohith’s Dalit identity and the role of casteism on campuses. Part of the problem is the utter disregard for the autonomy of universities and disallowing administrators from tuning in to the mood and aspirations on campuses.
The way ahead is to listen, and see the way Rohith Vemula and Kanhaiya Kumar have become symbols of a simmering multitude that cannot simply be pushed away or cowed down through the use of force. Even nationalism demands a dialogue. Love for the nation has to be nurtured, not shoved down throats. Diversity has to be acknowledged, not merely by recognising various social identities, but the ideas that come with them.
Finally, even to eventually resolve the Kashmir issue, we need to empathise with why Kashmiris feel so distanced from India, and wedge open a social narrative on the growing majoritarianism and radicalisation of the Kashmiri youth, problems of Kashmiri Pundits and their resettlement, unresolved issues of gender and religion, among other not-so-agreeable features of Kashmiri society. But in order to produce such a dialogue, we need to look into ourselves. Are we prepared for the social spaces such a political dialogue requires or are we filled with the fear of diversity?