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JNU Row For Dummies: A Rational Dissection Of 6 'Nationalist' Arguments

01/03/2016 8:10 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:26 AM IST
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Hindustan Times via Getty Images
NEW DELHI, INDIA - FEBRUARY 21: Thousands of people including ex-servicemen take out a unity march against 'anti-national' activities in Jawaharlal Nehru University Campus over the hanging of 2001 Parliament attack convict Afzal Guru, from Rajghat to Jantar Mantar near Mandi House on February 21, 2016 in New Delhi, India. The protest was organised under the banner 'March For Unity To Save The Country'. JNU has been on the boil over the arrest of its student's Union President Kanhaiya Kumar on sedition charges after some students organised a meet to mark the anniversaries of executions of Parliament attack convict Afzal Guru. Delhi's Patiala House Court on Wednesday sent JNU student union leader Kanhaiya Kumar to judicial custody till March 2. (Photo by Arvind Yadav/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

The discourse on recent events at JNU now resembles a spent cow at death's door. Over the last few days, it has been milked by every commentator with an internet connection and a social media account, across the political spectrum, to the point where another opinion piece on the subject would be akin to coaxing one more drop out of a woeful creature well past rigor-mortis.

While liberals in the media have focused more on the establishment's draconian response and less on the anti-India sloganeering (much to the chagrin of patriots on Twitter), many on the ideological right have been peddling a JP Dutta brand of nationalism that is as original as the next Sunny Deol film about an angry Indian dude in a turban.

If we promote a culture of silencing asinine ideas simply because they are distasteful, we may wake up to find we have lost our own right to protest.

Here, I will attempt to dissect the most common arguments made in the last two weeks, with much-needed nuance and rationality.

How dare they celebrate a convicted terrorist as a martyr?

Yes. Despicable. Barf inducing. But remember, not so long ago in another democratic nation, a bunch of White people considered a rally to demand equal rights for Blacks as despicable. Let me elucidate -- I am not suggesting that a rally in support of Afzal is akin to the civil rights movement. The point of my analogy is that every idea, whether noble or asinine, must be allowed a platform in a democracy, so long as it does not incite violence or bigotry against people. If we promote a culture of silencing asinine ideas simply because they are distasteful, one day we may wake up to find we have lost our own right to protest at the town-square against real injustice.

So let us mock these misguided misfits. Let us point out and laugh at their infantile rebellion. Let's debate them from the pulpits and show them that their martyrs are murdering thugs. But let us not slay our own right to dissent at the altar of rabid nationalism.

What about slogans calling for the destruction of India?

Most people seem to concur that the slogans were incendiary. Who should be held responsible (Kanhaiya?) and what should be the quantum of punishment (if any) is contentious. No political ideology, god or godman should be exempt from criticism, caricature or offence. So long as it does not call for violence against people. Were slogans such as "Bharat ki Barbaadi..." a call for violence? Let the authorities investigate and find out. No matter how grotesque the chants, no matter how ungrateful and loathsome you may find the wretches who raised them, unless we can establish an imminent threat to the republic, criminalising any protest is contrary to the precept of free speech.

If the outrage were indeed proportional to threat perception, then these same nationalists would be demanding a carpet bombing of the Jat agitators by now.

If we put emotions aside and judge the slogans purely by the level of threat they pose to the Union of India, we find that the response on part of the hyper-nationalists (on the ground and on the internet) is best summed up as overreaction. If the outrage were indeed proportional to threat perception, then these same nationalists would be demanding a carpet bombing of the Jat agitators by now. For the amount of tangible damage done to the nation by Jats in the last few days, and the dangerous precedent it sets, is far worse than all the sloganeering dimwits since independence put together, and then some.

Perhaps absolute free speech is a difficult concept to impress upon a nation that hounds comedians for mimicking godmen, and imprisons Kamlesh Tiwari (no less of a zealot himself) under archaic blasphemy laws for 'insulting' a 7th-century shaman. But in a country where orators who inspired pogroms are sitting in the highest echelons of power, and Bollywood superstars who allegedly galvanised mobs with their 'khoon ka badla khoon' speeches are worshipped as gods, arresting Kanhaiya on the grave charge of sedition, based on doctored clips aired by sensationalist news channels is gross highhandedness.

Isn't advocating secession a crime?

Yes (technically). As per the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act 1967. Whether or not the Kashmiri separatist movement has legitimate cause is beyond the scope of this piece. However, there are many other groups across the world, from Scottish Nationalists to Kurdish separatists, who make a compelling case for a separate state. Political boundaries on the World Atlas change more often than most people realise. The idea of India (as defined by its Secular Constitution; not the RSS's definition), has only been in existence since 1947. For the rest of our long history we have been ruled by foreign invaders and indigenous dynasties, who carved the land up as per their whims and military might.

Separatists should have the right to make a case for self-determination in a decent democracy, so long as they don't resort to violence.

Separatists should have the right to make a case for self-determination in a decent democracy, so long as they don't resort to violence in pursuit of their cause.

JNU students are ungrateful wretches. An insult to the memory of our fallen soldiers.

This is classic argumentum ad passiones (appeal to emotion fallacy). We are all indebted to those who have laid down their lives to defend our sovereignty. However, using it as an argument against secession is a lousy demonstration of poor debating skills.

All leftists are communists/anti-Nationals/ pro-terror

There are more hues to leftists than there are fallacies in a Chetan Bhagat article. Every leftist is not a Communist, and every Communist is not Joseph Stalin. Liberals disagree with each other on several issues, such as GMOs, reservations, and religion, to name a few. What we do agree on -- or at least every liberal should -- is that nobody deserves to be persecuted for simply voicing an opinion, no matter how repugnant.

Doesn't patriotism matter?

I cringed when I heard those slogans. But I find the establishment's response even more deplorable. Quite simply, a bunch of sloganeering rabble-rousers do not have the power to bring down the world's largest democracy, but a ruling party that panders to ultra-right wing fascists probably can.

A bunch of rabble-rousers do not have the power to bring down the world's largest democracy, but a ruling party that panders to ultra-right wing fascists probably can.

Everyone talks of India's vibrant cultural heritage, her plurality, her diversity, her inclusiveness (the numerous communal clashes notwithstanding); few of us realize that the only thing keeping this colossal melting pot from toppling over is our Constitution and the secular ethos of freedom and democracy enshrined in it. Blinded by seething anger, the nationalists are surprisingly quick to compromise on that ethos, in their misguided pursuit of 'swift justice'.

Those who think that the State's tacit approval of police highhandedness and mob justice at Patiala Court is a minor aberration in comparison to the provocative anti-India rants, clearly have a skewed moral compass. This is exactly the sort of warped sense of righteousness that makes Hindutvvawadis believe that the Godhra train burning justifies the State's complicity in the subsequent pogrom. To measure the ethical standards of an elected government against a bunch of rabble-rousers (or arsonists) is to have a very poor understanding of democracy and justice.

No matter how much you despise the likes of Umar Khalid, true allegiance to the idea of India lies in standing up for constitutional rights and against vigilante nationalists. It may be a lot less easy (and palatable) than typing 'Jai Hind' under every sappy Facebook post as a token of fealty, but it will be a far more reliable litmus test of your patriotism.

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