Sunday April 21, 2024

A battle for India’s soul

By Aijaz Zaka Syed
February 19, 2016

Dubai eye

The writer is a Middle East based columnist.

Isn’t it strange that the BJP-led nationalist government has turned to a hated colonial law that the British repeatedly used to punish thousands of Indian freedom fighters including Gandhi, and which Nehru condemned in parliament as ‘highly objectionably and obnoxious’?

But stranger things have happened in this country since the BJP came to power. The latest targets of the dispensation in Delhi are students, scholars, writers and all those who dare to think on their own.

At the height of America’s long and disastrous Vietnam war, US campuses were rocked by a powerful anti-war movement. Young people came out on the streets to protest the mindless destruction of a tiny, impoverished country and killing of hundreds of thousands of innocent people at the hands of the most powerful army on earth. Thousands refused to enlist for Uncle Sam’s war, one of them being a certain Mohammed Ali who would reason: “I ain’t got no quarrel with those Vietcong!”

Bob Dylan wrote his iconic protest songs, from ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ to ‘Masters of War’, and from ‘Talking World War III Blues’ to ‘The Times They Are A-Changin’ during those years, firing up the imagination of an entire generation.

This movement, which questioned all authority and notions of nationalism, soon spread to the other side of the Atlantic and around the world. The year 1968 saw Europe swept by a wave of protests. Repelled by new gods of the nation-state, crassness of western materialism and increasing meaninglessness of the church and the state, many turned to what came to be known as the hippy way of life.

What defined those times was the craving for a better and more just world and a healthy irreverence for authority. Protesting against nuclear weapons, wars and jingoistic policies of their governments, they did not shy away from censuring the state. Flags were freely burnt and individuals did not worry too much about inviting charges of sedition under archaic, colonial laws when they confronted their governments.

Even today look at all that Noam Chomsky, the Leftist philosopher and eminent linguist, gets away with against his own country. Read any of his speeches, essays and interviews at the height of US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and you would be instantly forced to broaden your horizons.

From calling the Bushies war criminals to slamming the US for its hegemonic wars, Chomsky repeatedly held a mirror to his country. And as far as I know, the US government hasn’t as yet put the most influential dissident of our time in the dock for ‘sedition’ or ‘anti-national activities’, as has been the fate of student leaders of Delhi’s prestigious Jawaharlal Nehru University. Nor has it imprisoned filmmakers like Michael Moore who repeatedly questioned, challenged and mocked their commander-in-chief for the absurdities of a ‘with-us-or-against-us’ worldview.

Some of these dissidents were so angry with the actions of their governments that they renounced their identity, as Arundhati Roy did some years ago declaring her own independence: “I hereby declare myself an independent, mobile republic. I am a citizen of the earth. I own no territory. I have no flag.”

Railing against US wars, popular pastor Rev Jeremiah Wright of Chicago, who was once close to Barack Obama and even baptised his children, would thunder: “...Killing those that fought to protect their own homes does not make for peace. We confuse government and God. We believe God sanctioned the rape and robbery of an entire continent. And (they want) us to sing ‘God Bless America.’ No, no, no. Not ‘God Bless America’; God Damn America! That’s in the Bible, for killing innocent people!”

Nobody accused the pastor of being ‘anti-national’. Nor did the US government threaten to teach him a lesson, as India’s powerful Home Minister Rajnath Singh has in response to the harmless slogans of JNU students. Why? Because there is no democracy without dissent and tolerance for difference of opinion. Dissent is rooted in freedom and free speech, the prerequisites of democracy.

There may be a lot of things wrong with the land of the free; but as a mature, self-assured democracy, Americans know that to question the state, its policies and actions is the right and prerogative of the citizenry.

Compared to what Chomsky and others have repeatedly said and written against their governments and their policies, what some JNU students said and did by way of solidarity with Afzal Guru and Kashmiris last week was nothing. But when ‘government is confused with God’ and the country acquires the halo of divinity, anything can be stretched to fall into the realm of ‘sedition’ and ‘anti-national’ activities. Not for nothing had Iqbal argued: In taza khudaon mein bada sabsay watan hai!

Hindutva has appointed itself the sole guardian, defender and interpreter of national interest. Samuel Johnson famously described patriotism as the last refuge of a scoundrel. In the interesting times that we live, it has become the first and foremost tool and a big stick in the hands of the Right, which it uses at the drop of a hat to deadly effect against its adversaries and usual suspects. Rather clever for folks who sat out the national struggle for freedom and repeatedly colluded with the colonial powers.

Muslims and other minorities have long been the helpless pawns in this dangerous game. There is something incredibly emasculating when you are accused of not being ‘loyal’ to the land of your birth. Few would know how to respond to the slur. Having lived with the vile accusation for the past 70 years and more, India’s Muslims still haven’t figured out how.

Dalits have suffered in other ways for centuries. But they are fighting back as they try to take charge of their destiny. Which is what Rohith Vemula and his comrades at the Hyderabad Central University were trying to do when the Hindutva wrath was unleashed on them, accusing them of being ‘anti-national and traitors’ for protesting against the hanging of Afzal Guru and Yakub Memon.

But this is not a debate on nationalism, Kashmiri separatism or what great universities like JNU represent. What is unfolding, from Hyderabad to Delhi, is a battle for India’s soul. It is not enough for the BJP to capture the reins of power in the name of universally appealing slogans like development and fighting corruption.

The saffron clan knows it cannot succeed in reining in the independent spirit of the country unless it takes control of its universities and colleges, think tanks, research centres and the media. It has already infiltrated most of them. Most university vice-chancellors picked up by the government are fellow travellers. School curricula are being entirely rewritten through the jaundiced Hindutva prism, in order to raise generations of Indians on a diet of hate and intolerance. Institutions like the Indian Council of Historical Research, widely respected for their scholarship, are now headed by RSS men.

Universities like JNU are a thorn in the side of the Parivar because of their very liberal nature and the spirit of free thinking and debate that they encourage. The fact that JNU has always been the stronghold of liberal, progressive groups makes it the most tempting target for the Right. Anyone who does not subscribe to the saffron worldview must be branded ‘anti-national’ and wiped out.

But as the events of the past few days have demonstrated, liberal and secular India is fighting back. The fact that after JNU, university students in Calcutta marched to the chants of ‘Azadi’ and Afzal Guru goes to prove that this is a protest against the darkness that is fast enveloping India.

The brutal attack on JNU students, teachers and journalists inside a Delhi court by BJP goons points to the shape of things to come. Today it is university students, journalists, women, minorities and Dalits who are in the line of fire. Who knows for whom the bell tolls tomorrow. These are critical times for the world’s largest democracy. Fascism is on the march – it is time for everyone to stand up and be counted.