Human Resource Development Minister Smriti Irani made an impassioned defence of her ministry in Parliament as the House debated Rohith Vemula’s suicide and the police action on Jawaharlal Nehru University students. In both style and substance, it stood apart from other speeches from the treasury benches. The speech, later endorsed by the prime minister himself — with a satyamev jayate postscript — was a clear articulation of her party’s views on both issues. The message is disturbing. It underlines the BJP’s resolve to go on the offensive against what it calls the anti-national views of the JNU students and to leverage that issue to one of politics and identity. She targeted the TRS, the party in government in Hyderabad, for neglecting Rohith and accused the Opposition, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi in particular, of politicising his death: “A child’s body was used as a political tool” was her refrain.
Irani’s speech, in its essence, echoed the shrill rhetoric of BJP supporters in the street, of the men who assaulted students, teachers and journalists in court and the Delhi BJP MLA who wanted to gun down “anti-nationals”. She sought to claim victimhood, talking of her being hanged and offering her head if that’s what the Opposition wanted. She also spoke of being a mother to raise an emotional pitch about Rohith but was relentless against the JNU students. Her invocation of Cicero was revealing. The enemy at the gates was less dangerous than the traitor within who rots the soul of a nation, she recalled the Roman philosopher, adding that “a murderer is less to fear”. Really? In the India of 2016, with its vibrant democracy, which she eloquently referred to as well, are dissenting students traitors?
In her fire and fury, there was a moment that showed what this speech could have been. She kept referring to Rohith as a “child”. She was spot-on — the university-student compact is, in a way, similar to that of a parent and a child. Certainly not what she invoked when she quoted Cicero and alluded to the JNU students being ones who appeal to the “baseness that lies deep in the hearts of all men” and “rot the soul of a nation”.