04/03/2016 2:58 PM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:26 AM IST

Kanhaiya Showed Why We Should Stop Using The Soldier To Shut Down Debate

Hindustan Times via Getty Images
NEW DELHI, INDIA - MARCH 3: JNUSU President Kanhaiya Kumar addressing JNU students after his release on March 3, 2016 in New Delhi, India. Kanhaiya Kumar was granted interim bail for six months by the Delhi High Court after spending 20 days in jail. Kumar was arrested on February 12 on charges of sedition and criminal conspiracy after alleged anti-national slogans were raised on the JNU campus on February 9. (Photo by Sanjeev Verma/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

Ek BJP ka sansaad ne kaha ki sipahi shaheed hote hain seema par… Main poochna chahta hoon, kya woh unka bhai hai? Khet main jo kisan hai woh uska beta hai. Aap uske liey kya karte hai? Woh mera bhai hai, mera pita hai. (A BJP MP had said soldiers are being martyred on the borders… I want to ask, “Is the soldier his brother? The soldier is the son of the farmer who toils in the fields. What are you doing for the farmer? The soldier is my brother and the farmer is my father).

As I have said before, the BJP government took an unknown student union leader and made him a national figure. Kanhaiya Kumar lived up to his reputation with an electrifying speech at the JNU campus after being released on bail. He took aim at many things in the speech--from Modi-ji, who delivers Mann ki Baat but does not listen, to the condom-counting Gyandev Ahuja to Smriti Irani.

But his comment about the soldier is particularly noteworthy.

The Siachen soldier has become the politician’s favourite trope not just as a way to define patriotism but as a way to shut down debate.

Anurag Thakur, the BJP MP Kumar was referring to, was the one who declared rhetorically: “You will have to decide whether you are with those who attack our Parliament or those who protect it.

It’s a false choice. Having reservations about the way Afzal Guru was hanged or concerns about the judicial process does not mean support for an attack on Parliament. But a choice wrapped in the flag is not a choice at all. It’s an ultimatum, a line in the sand.

The Siachen soldier has become the politician’s favourite trope not just as a way to define patriotism but as a way to shut down debate.

Even the Delhi High Court brought up the Siachen soldier while granting Kanhaiya Kumar bail, packing quite a stern lesson in patriotism.

“Our forces are protecting our frontiers in the most difficult terrain in the world i.e. Siachen Glacier or Rann of Kutch…” the order noted. The court worried that anti-national slogans “may have demoralizing effect on the family of those martyrs who returned home in coffins draped in tricolor.” Those who “raise such slogans in the comfort of University campus” do not stop to think that they are “in this safe environment because our forces are there at the battlefield situated at the highest altitude of the world where even oxygen is so scarce”, the court noted.

Rights, whether of freedom of expression or anything else, are guaranteed by the Constitution. They apply whether or not our soldiers are standing guard in Siachen. And if our laws determine that the right to freedom of speech must be tempered, keeping in mind communal harmony or sedition for that matter, that too is because the law says so and not out of special consideration to brave soldiers doing their jobs in inhospitable terrains.

Bhopal residents light candles to mourn the death of Siachen survivor Lance Naik Hanamanthappa Koppad at Shaurya Smarak on 11 February, 2016.

The JNU crisis broke when Lance Naik Hanumanthappa was fighting for his life after being found buried in the snows of Siachen. The two stories had nothing to do with each other but thanks to timing they became joined at the hip with television anchors hammering the point home.

When Umar Khalid appeared on Times Now’s News Hour, anchor Arnab Goswami read him the riot act. When Khalid tried to interrupt him, Goswami thundered: “You will not speak over me when I am speaking about Lance Naik Hanumanthappa… You don’t have the decency when I am speaking about someone who is battling for his life to keep interrupting like that.” He reminded Khalid that he sits on the JNU campus while Hanumanthappa is at 19,600 feet near the LoC.

Sudhir Chaudhry on Zee News complained that while the nation was obsessed with the anti-national slogan shouters of JNU and the shenanigans at Patiala Courthouse, enough attention was not paid to the bodies of the 9 bravehearts brought to Delhi from Siachen. He reminded his viewers that these soldiers bore the brunt of that block of ice for six days for the likes of Kanhaiya Kumar and those who were then still absconding from JNU.

Some are using the tragic death of soldiers to draw a Line of Control on freedom of speech whether in JNU or in the television studio. It is a false equivalence in every way.

Number one, a soldier cannot be the only sanctioned test of patriotism and courage. Who would say those women in Manipur who stripped naked to shame the armed forces accused of rape there were lacking in courage?

Number two, the Siachen soldier trapped in snow has nothing to do with what is happening in JNU. Our soldiers serve in Siachen whether or not UPA is in power or NDA is in power, whether or not students are raising slogans or quietly going to class. And they defend all Indians, not just ones with patriotism certificates just as politicians represent all their constituents even those who voted against them.

Number three, it is possible to dissent with the policies of the state and yet support the courage of its soldiers at the same time. These are not mutually exclusive or incompatible and we must beware of the politician who uses the sacrifice of the soldier to bolster his politics or defend his policies.

Some are using the tragic death of soldiers to draw a Line of Control on freedom of speech whether in JNU or in the television studio.

The soldier is doing his job the best he can. The rest of us should do our job equally without fear or favour. Should the student at JNU, or indeed an anchor in Delhi or Mumbai, be expected to mind their tongues until and unless they have also done a stint in oxygen-deprived Siachen? Since it’s a safe bet 99.999% of the country will never go to Siachen, it is ridiculous to use a Siachen test to silence them.

To hold freedom of expression hostage to the bravery of soldiers is going into dangerous terrain indeed. Especially when, as BJD’s Tathagatha Satpathy alleges, the BJP government spurned Pakistani help when they offered to rescue Indian soldiers trapped in Siachen.

As The Rants of a Pakistani Citizen tweeted angrily: “Poor soldiers made to sit on top Siachen are not heroes. Their lives are just the price both India and Pakistan gladly pay just to keep hating each other. More soldiers have died due to cold than combat in Siachen. That’s just nature’s way of telling both countries to stop this shit.”

If that soldier is not serving in Siachen so that an upstart university student can shout obnoxious slogans, he is also not serving there so that some politician or anchor can hide behind him to score debating points. His life is hard enough. In the name of honouring soldiers, let’s not use him as a football to score petty political points. It is true that the soldier defends our freedom and our borders but then as Kanhaiya Kumar told the cheering crowd, “Bharat se nahin, mere bhaiyon, Bharat mein azadi chaahte hain (We don’t want freedom from India my brothers, we want freedom in India.)"

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