Viewpoint: India's tortured debate on nationalism and free speech

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A file picture taken on February 17, 2016 shows Indian activists shouting slogans against Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) and the late Kashmiri separatist Mohammed Afzal Guru at a protest outside the university in New Delhi.Image source, AFP
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Many believe that whipping up nationalism is a 'risky gamble' for the government

It was the French intellectual and writer, Albert Camus, who once wrote, "I love my country too much to be a nationalist".

Those words seem to have particular relevance to India's contemporary political milieu.

What most activists and intellectuals across India seem to have forgotten is that those who forged India's constitution were ardent liberal democrats.

They would have a tough time recognising the tortured debate about nationalism and free expression in India taking place today.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government seems to have convinced itself that it has a monopoly in defining what constitutes nationalism.

To that end, it has chosen to hound intellectuals, students and activists who hold a vision of India that differs from that of their own.

Self indulgent

The latest episode, of course, that has galvanised both the government and the opposition, involves the harassment of some student leaders at India's premier Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU).

The students have been accused of organising an event commemorating the hanging of 2001 parliament attacks convict Afzal Guru, where "anti-India slogans" were allegedly raised.

Admittedly, much of the sloganeering, which precipitated the harsh actions of the government, was naive and self-indulgent.

Guru, a Kashmiri militant, was executed in 2013 after all his legal challenges were exhausted, and a presidential clemency plea denied.

The decision to dismiss his pleas, it needs to be underscored, had in any case, taken place under a different political dispensation. Commemorating his death anniversary hardly constituted an act of sagacious judgment.

The government could have simply condemned the callousness of the event and let matters rest.

Instead it sent the police into the campus, arrested several members of the student union and allowed at least one of them to be publicly humiliated at the time of his court appearance.

Image source, AFP
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The student leader of JNU was beaten by lawyers while being produced in court

Opposing reactions

The rants of the students may well have been reprehensible. However, the government hardly covered itself in glory in resorting to the colonial era sedition law to try and cow these dissidents.

Worse still, it showed scant regard for the rights of the accused when it created permissive conditions for a group of lawyers to physically harass the student on his way to court.

These appalling actions have elicited two strikingly opposing reactions.

On the one hand, a segment of the country's intelligentsia has uncritically lionised the students.

JNU, which for decades was a bastion of left-wing sentiment, has suddenly been hailed as an arena of spirited intellectual freedom and debate.

The stridency of these assertions notwithstanding, they are, quite frankly, disingenuous.

Image source, EPA
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Some activists believe that the colonial-era sedition law has no place in modern India

From the time of former prime minister Indira Gandhi, JNU has given scant space to the consideration of any viewpoints that smacked of ideological conservatism. Those of that persuasion were ostracised.

The other reaction, however, is more disturbing.

The students may well have been difficult to control and were hardly models of common sense. That said, their speeches still fell firmly within the ambit of free speech.

Suggesting that such naive proclamations either challenge the foundations of the Indian republic or constitute a threat to Indian nationalism is nonsense.

Sadly, such a parochial vision of nationalism is the stock in trade of the ruling party.

Its concept of nationalism challenges the liberal democratic vision embodied in the Indian constitution.

Instead, what it is peddling is a parochial, primordial conception of nationalism that privileges the majority religious community, brooks no dissent and seeks to marginalise, or worse still, muzzle the views of those it finds distasteful.

Of course, it would be dishonest to suggest that this government alone has been hostile towards views that it finds disagreeable.

Image source, AFP
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Maqbool Fida Husain often faced anger from religious groups because of his work
Image source, AFP
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But other groups feel that students should not be harassed in the name of sedition and terrorism

Naked nationalism

After all what did a Congress government do to protect the rights of the eminent Indian painter, Maqbool Fida Husain? Or for that matter what courage did it display in sheltering the noted but controversial Bangladeshi writer, Taslima Nasreen?

Fearful of the wrath of orthodox Muslim groups, they too have displayed pitiable fortitude in defending artistic expression that some found objectionable.

These failures had already eroded India's liberal democratic ethos.

Indeed India towards the end of the last decade of the 20th Century had already become a far cry from the land that its founders and constitution framers had envisaged.

Image source, AFP
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Right-wing student groups have supported the arrest of JNU students

What the country is currently witnessing is simply a more naked and blatant version of some deeply illiberal, hyper-nationalistic trends.

Virtually every political party, regardless of ideological stripe, has to varying degrees been complicit in the closing of minds in India.

Even the organised political Left, which is so vociferously crying foul over the government's high-handed actions in the name of nationalism, maintained a curious and deafening silence when unpopular views and ideas were under attack earlier.

The tragedy that now stalks the land is that many of those decrying the chest-thumping nationalism of the BJP were themselves complicit in constricting the arena of free speech.

Consequently, their strident denunciations of the BJP's ham-fisted tactics tend to ring a bit hollow.

And the BJP, which has never had much use for the pluralist, secular tenets embedded in India's constitution, now feels at liberty to intimidate and bully those who dare question its ideological writ.

It is a pity indeed that few, if any, Indian intellectuals, let alone its political class, would make common cause today with Camus' brilliant formulation - a sentiment that many of India's constitutional framers might actually have embraced.

Sumit Ganguly holds the Rabindranath Tagore Chair in Indian Cultures and Civilizations at Indiana University, Bloomington.