Nationalism Fever Strikes India

By L K Sharma, February 26, 2016

Narendra Modi - Prime Minister of India

Narendra Modi – Prime Minister of India

The debate in India about 'nationalism' or 'anti-nationalism' is essentially between the pro and anti-Modi forces. "When a society is in a state of frenzy, words acquire different meanings. “Intolerance” becomes a word of abuse against the Prime Minister. “Freedom of expression” signifies anti-nationalism."

The current great debate in India about being national and anti-national has been called by an eminent film-maker a “great comedy”. The situation does seem bizarre. The “anti-nationals” are being asked to leave the country and go to Pakistan. They in turn say that those waving the flags of patriotism want to destroy the idea of India.

Concerned citizens, activists, civil libertarians, constitutional experts, and protesting university students see an unfolding tragedy in the violence perpetrated by the “patriotic” mobs. The mobs undermine the democratic order. They flaunt their commitment to the ruling party’s ideology and bank on police inaction.

India is never an easy assignment for foreign correspondents sent to this land of contradictions with the brief that what is true about this country, its opposite is also true! This correspondent will find the current situation weird. He may also start wondering what is democracy. After all, he was sent to one of the great democracies of the world!

The foreign correspondent rushes to the place where it all began. To Jawaharlal Nehru University, a premier institution of India recognised globally for its scholarship and the culture of debate and dissent. Its website carries Nehru’s words: “A university stands for humanism. For tolerance, for reason, for the adventure of ideas and for the search of truth.” It is one university in which the union elections set an example for the country’s politicians. These are held on the basis of debating skills and without the use of money or muscle power.

It is one university in which a student union owing allegiance to the party of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has remained on the fringe despite vigorous campaigning over the years to wrest control from the left-leaning organisations.

So what happened at this university? Some student organisation held a meeting where capital punishment given to a Pakistan-trained Indian terrorist was questioned. The crowds that perhaps included outsiders raised pro-Pakistan and anti-India slogans. A ruling party functionary lodged a police complaint. The police went in and arrested the student union president who had expressed no “anti-national” sentiments at the meeting. He had talked about freedom from poverty and freedom from the sectarian ideology of the ruling establishment.

This student leader was charged with sedition! To justify the police case, doctored videos were telecast. False rumours were spread about him. The groups affiliated to the Prime Minister’s party thrashed this young PhD student while he was being taken to court by the police.

What followed was the mass hysteria against the “anti-national” elements. The “nationalists” created a hostile atmosphere against the JNU students and demonised the university. The students protested peacefully in defence of the freedom expression and the autonomy of the universities.

The foreign correspondent lands in a country that is stricken by a raging fever of pseudo-nationalism and pop-patriotism. What sense can he make of the cries of “kill-kill” against the so-called “anti-national” Indians? He reads about the doctored videos being telecast to support a false charge of sedition against a student leader. He finds some ruling party leaders demanding the closure of the Jawaharlal Nehru University! The correspondent discovers that JNU has for long been targeted by the BJP and its ideological mentor RSS for being a hotbed of the leftists. And since it cannot be purified with a touch of Hindutva, it must be closed down.

The visiting journalist reads the disturbing statement made by some British academics on the situation in India. He notes that Prof. Noam Chomsky, along with Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk and 86 other academicians including Indian teachers in America, has condemned “the culture of authoritarian menace that the present government in India has generated”.

In short, the foreign correspondent finds the in temper and a disaffected student community. He sees a society seething with hate. He senses confrontation in the air. “Kill-Kill” is the word he hears on the streets and in the TV studios. He reads threats of murder and rape. He studies the editorials calling for the rule of law and for a professional police force and an objective media.

He gets about finding answers to several questions. Why is the history of Nazi Germany being recalled in a spate of newspaper articles and speeches? Why are the people protesting against the misuse of the sedition law? Why is the police force letting the political goons beat up the “anti-national” accused being taken to a court of law or the journalists cover the court case? Why have some commentators coined the phrase “goonda nationalism”?

Having come prepared to cover religious violence, the foreign correspondent finds that this time the confrontation is not about the desecration of a Hindu temple or the Holy Koran or about a Hindu girl marrying a Muslim or some one killing a cow or eating beef. This time it is about nationalism, an issue with which the enlightened west is only too familiar.

Nationalism, patriotism
Nationalism has been critically analysed by Indian thinkers who cherished humanism and alerted against the dangers of nationalism. Rabindranath Tagore said “patriotism cannot be our final spiritual shelter; my refuge is humanity”. Tagore wrote that the logic of the Nation will never heed the voice of truth and goodness. He said the fierce self-idolatory of nation-worship is not the goal of human history. The German history as well as Tagore’s views on nationalism is cited extensively by those criticising the mobs wanting to issue certificates of patriotism. One commentator said Tagore would have been called “anti-national” today. Another pointed out that by these standards, the Apple chief in America would be arrested for sedition for not cooperating with the FBI! A police officer in Jammu and Kashmir said that were they to arrest people for shouting “Freedom for Kashmir” or for raising the Pakistani flag, they would be filing several cases every week!

The foreign correspondent finds that some Indians are ready to kill human-beings in order to protect the lives of cows. He reads about the mobs asking the citizens to sing the national anthem, salute Mother India and fly the national flag. Those defying the orders are asked to go to Pakistan or face punishment at home.

When a society is in a state of frenzy, words acquire different meaning. “Intolerance” became a word of abuse directed against the Prime Minister of India. “Freedom of expression” signifies anti-nationalism.

The correspondent reads the hundreds of death threats sent through the cyber space to students and journalists and to the members of their families. The self-proclaimed nationalists feel empowered with false courage – a gift of the social media!

Apart from these cowards hiding behind the giant internet servers, some brave Indians thrashing “anti-national” individuals do not mind their faces being shown on the TV. They get garlanded and honoured publicly for their “courage”. The media-savvy Delhi Police turns a blind eye because Facebook flaunts a photo of this character with the country’s home minister.

India’s woman education minister was perhaps inspired by the vigilante groups who created mayhem on the streets waving the national flags tied to sticks five to six feet long. Her ministry ordered the Government universities to fly the national flag!

An eminent public intellectual welcomed the order but raised a critical question: “Why 207-feet high?” Since India invented the number zero, a 200-feet-high flag would deepen the sense of patriotism, he wrote. The cyber bullies are sure to be angered by his qualified dissent. The height matters. How dare this ivory-tower man reduce it by full seven feet!

Earlier, a couple of writers were killed physically and one “killed” the writer in himself and abandoned his vocation in response to threats to his life. Protests by writers, artists and scientists had followed and they were demonised for talking about “intolerance”. The pro-Modi political activists took to streets and the TV studios to pour venom against the writers protesting against intolerance.

The debate on intolerance had hardly subsided when the current campaign against the “anti-national” forces was launched. No holds are barred. Death threats are shouted, student and journalists are physically attacked and a father is asked to shoot down his “anti-national” daughter. These threats are printed, aired on the TV and appear on the social media in the posts by the patriotic Indians!

The foreign correspondent observes a hysterical campaign to protect the honour of Mother India and to denounce the “anti-nationals” who are asked to leave India along with the beef-eaters. He gets to see why a sizeable section is crying for a democratic India.

The recent events in India demonstrate that the State doesn’t have to directly intervene to suspend civil liberties. In any case, the Constitution prevents the authority from making any blatant move. When democracy constrained the US Government from fighting terrorism in a certain way, some illegal services were outsourced to the non-state actors. In the current situation, it is not the Government but the non-state actors who have unleashed a reign of terror.

The foreign correspondent, trained in old-fashioned journalism, is surprised to find that India’s visual media fanning the flames of pseudo-nationalism and declaring any one a criminal. Most screaming anchors imitate a popular Irish-American TV talk show host of America.

A rare TV journalist whose channel is not controlled by any one running other businesses ultimately could not bear it any more. He produces a programme on the dangers to democracy posed by the so-called free media that chases popularity ratings by debasing public discourse through cock-fights in the studio. Ravish Kumar did not spare himself while alerting the TV viewers that the vigilante groups seen thrashing the “anti-national” student on false charges could come to their homes one day! He used darkness on the small screen to illumine minds. This programme must be seen to understand how the “free” media can help subvert democracy. Journalism students may get to know of the havoc the visual media is playing in India.

Of course, following the ethics of journalism, the foreign correspondent strikes a balance and says that a glass that is half empty is a glass half full. He reports that India continues to be a functioning democracy. The duly elected national government is in place and so is the Constitution. The highly professional army has never had a rogue colonel. Elections are conducted regularly. Political rallies are held peacefully. The opposition leaders give fiery speeches. Courts function. The press is free. Film censorship is challenged quite often. And of course, there are no mid-night knocks.

But a balanced report does not always tell the whole story. At times, a writer, not a journalist, is better able to tell the truth. What is happening in India today needs to be explained by V. S. Naipaul in his luminous prose. He understands mass frenzy and he knows all about the political leaders of the Third World.

The genie of sectarianism
To put it simply, it was intolerance yesterday and nationalism today. The issues come and go. These are revived or abandoned, depending on the political calculations. The pot has to be kept boiling if the electorate is to be polarised and vote banks protected or acquired.

The great battle in India is essentially between the pro-Modi and anti-Modi forces. The former consist of Modi’s ideological soldiers plus those who are not the Hindutva votaries. They had flocked to him during the last parliamentary elections because they were deeply disappointed by the previous Government.

This latter group is also concerned about the venom injected into the society. But many of this non-Hindutva group still believe that the Prime Minister will one day speak against the unruly elements in his political family determined to polarise the nation. They believe that like Lord Shiva, Mr. Modi will swallow the poison to save the creation. The body-politic will be detoxified and cleansed. India will stop generating hate and start making aircrafts.

More and more people are coming to the conclusion that this is unlikely to happen. They say the genie of sectarianism cannot to be pushed back into the bottle easily. In the current atmosphere, these nay-sayers have to take care and protect themselves.

These days TV’s political reportage ends with a thematically appropriate Bollywood song. So this piece concludes with: yeh kahaan aa gaye hum? Oh where, oh where have we come? — a thought that is troubling the concerned Indians.


L K Sharma has followed no profession other than journalism for more than four decades, covering criminals and prime ministers. Was the European Correspondent of The Times of India based in London for a decade. Reported for five years from Washington as the Foreign Editor of the Deccan Herald. Edited three volumes on innovations in India. He has completed a work of creative nonfiction on V. S. Naipaul.

Article courtesy of Open Democracy

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