July 25, 2017 1:50:48 am
M Jagadesh Kumar, vice-chancellor of Jawaharlal Nehru University, has sought the help of General V.K. Singh to have an army tank parked on campus, to remind students of the sacrifices soldiers make. Would he like the tank to be armed with live ammunition to give the reminder additional force? Performative, self-congratulatory patriotism remains the last refuge of the discredited, but the VC may well discover that a tank is poor armour against the objections of those who still remember that a university campus is an inappropriate venue for the valorisation of militarism. The university ought to be a safe haven for the freedom of thought, where nothing except knowledge is sacred, and where questions are far more important than easy answers. The tank would be a conversation-stopper.
Of course, the men and women in uniform deserve our respect and gratitude. But this should not be symbolically expressed at institutions of learning. Commemorative military hardware is displayed at institutions and in prominent places in several Indian cities, to remind citizens of the role of the military. That is where the tank belongs, in public spaces, not on campus, where it can only be a minatory presence attenuating debate.
Not so long ago, JNU was the epicentre of the battle over nationalism, and it would now seem that having run out of arguments, the VC wants to trundle in a tank as the last word. That’s serious stopping power, especially in a context in which public debate is already being conditioned by a pervasive militarisation, which romanticises symbols like flags and uniforms and demonises the critical faculty as anti-national.
Kumar asked for his tank at the first-ever celebration of Kargil Vijay Diwas at JNU, which was attended by two NDA ministers. Two of the speakers at the function spoke in self-congratulatory tones on the “capture” of JNU, and looked forward to similar occupations of Jadavpur University and Hyderabad Central University. These institutions, where the question of nationalism was debated energetically, stand on Indian territory. The notion of occupying or capturing them is simply bizarre.
It is also sobering. The last time heavy armour figured prominently in campus life in South Asia was in East Pakistan on the night of March 25, 1971. General Yahya Khan’s tanks rolled into Dhaka University as part of Operation Searchlight, beginning a massacre of intellectuals. Speaking of tanks on campus naturally recalls that terrible memory. The installation of a tank on an Indian campus would not snuff out the freedom to think quite as suddenly, but it would have an unhealthy effect on academic thought. Armour and academia just don’t belong together.
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