Make India Great Again

I was rereading Persepolis today. ‘Tis a brilliant graphic novel by Marjane Satrapi, detailing a childhood and youth spent in post-Cultural Revolution Iran.

Here is the panel I came across that struck me as being particularly poignant:

Source: Tumblr

Here is the picture I saw yesterday that appears to encapsulate this sentiment:



And here is the picture I saw today that inspired me to start writing:

Source: Facebook

Well, I guess we got away with it long enough.

If you have access to the internet and are reading this right now, you cannot be ignorant of what is going on at JNU, one of India’s leading institutions of higher education. You are also probably aware of the reaction that has met movements at other institutions, such as Jadavpur University, that have supported the cause of that much-maligned of students, Kanhaiya Kumar, who has been accused of sedition and arrested, and who awaits trial at the Delhi High Court right now. We’re not even going to go into the matter of Umar Khalid, another student accused of similar complaints, with the additional burden of being Muslim in an increasingly paranoid India.

And you have most certainly encountered the term “anti-national” being thrown around like condoms and beer bottles on the JNU campus.

Here are some of the myths that have been propagated about this term:

1.It has a single universal definition that is in direct opposition to a similarly universally defined term “national”.

There is no single definition of a term that encompasses such a vast number of people, cultures, ideas and ideologies and nobody is obliged to ascribe to any of the multitudinous versions floating out there. When the term is being applied here, it refers to nationalism as constructed by only one particular political group.

2. The students who are being labelled with this term are remotely interested in supporting our problematic twin nation across the border.

In the minds of those who practice reactionary politics, a white must have a black, said a fellow student of my college recently. It would seem that in the mind of the hyper-masculine religion-drugged muscled-jingoistic राष्ट्रवादी, the black to India’s white is our conjoined twin, born of the torn womb of British India. I wonder if they will believe that criticising our nation’s judicial processes is tantamount to helping to assure improvement and justice, thus benefitting our own nation rather than “supporting” Pakistan?

P.S. Go read this article where a journalist from one of the news channels that reported this categorically mentions that “There were no Pro-Pakistan slogans“. And this one for a more in-depth perspective.

3. It has been applied to the dissenting students justly and because of any actual incident that included propagation of “I hate India” sort of sentiments.

This is the most insidious evil and irony in the situation.

The entire polarising India- anti-India debate has been created, for one, by the media looking to boost TRPs through a simplistic us v/s them debate that is easy to understand and consume, and for another, by groups looking to undermine the validity of the students’ opinions.

The question  of whether the students are “anti-Indian” or not is moot, for the very simple reason that this is a question that has been imposed on the original issue in order to distract observers from asking the real questions: What, actually, was the protest meeting at JNU that sparked off the entire fracas, about? Were the students justified in their demands? Is it possible they actually had something interesting, and more importantly, disturbing to say?

P.S. Here is an article that does a good job of detailing what was happening on campus on February 9th, the day all this began.

The debate has basically been an extremely clever ploy by bullies and cowards, intent on driving the media narrative of these incidents and the depiction of these students to suit their purposes. These people have understood that citizens who genuinely have some amount of respect and concern for their country will think twice before saying, “I stand for these students’ political right to dissent within our democracy”, if they think that by saying so, they are supporting those who want to harm the country.

Here are some of the myths that have been propagated about these students:

1. They actually do want to destroy an entire country from within.

If students demonstrate peacefully about an issue, they are doing so within the space of our democratic right to dissent. And the only reason that they’re actually bothering to demonstrate, to point out a perceived fault, is because they want to better the nation and its processes. And the only reason anybody would want that is because they love and hope for the India that can be.

Here’s me being the devil’s advocate: even if the protests were motivated by the interest of a single party or faction, they were still being held within the democratic space of dissent. One can argue and start up a debate, or hold counter demonstrations, if one is opposed to any aspect of these protests. One cannot threaten to take the law into one’s own hands and beat up the accused in retaliation. The mockery of justice that took place at Patiala House over the last few days, for both Kanhaiya and the reporters who were attacked, is the very opposite of all laws in the constitution that is supposed to be the basis of the nation and nationalism: the principles of being innocent until proven guilty, of a fair trial, and of the media, the alleged “fifth pillar of democracy”, being allowed to carry out its function of on-ground reporting. The police were inactive while those meant to uphold the law and the constitution freely indulge in some good ol’ fashioned mob violence while asking reporters, “Where is the Supreme Court now?”

And none of these guardians of the nation have been held guilty for their proven offences.

The conflation of ‘political party’ with ‘government’, and ‘government’ with ‘nation’, has been a long-existing confusion in India’s political discourse. Yet this latest instance amounts to systematic violence against those who disagree.

And ultimately, perhaps, the nation, that figment of patriotic imagination, is a very small factor in this. These are people who want power. And street violence, hand-to hand combat (or, for that matter, comment-to-comment on social media platforms) provides a sense of power and self-worth that peaceful dissent cannot. I suggest you go read the sections in The Handmaid’s Tale that talk about the cleansing power of ritual violence.

Oh, right. Reading is for anti-national sissies.

2. They are merely ‘stirring up trouble’ for the heck of it and are not interested in education.

Believe it or not, having a political conscience is part of being educated. What have I learnt at this most “troublesome” of universities: Jadavpur? To have the discretion to identify the signs when something is amiss. To have the courage to stand up for what I believe in. To speak out when I see wrongs happening.  If your child is aware of more than one way to interpret a narrative: congratulations, your child’s education is in no way lacking and is, in fact, more complete than most of the world’s. This is something an autowallah I met today understands: an outspoken man with whom I had a conversation this morning about why he believes students of JU are right to protest if they perceive “anyaya” in society. And our grave aunties and uncles and pundits in all their wisdom and glorious careers of cultivated, methodical spinelessness don’t.

So what does the issue I started with: a) of the apparent government crackdown on bloggers, have in common with the one we ended up on: b) the very definite government crackdown on dissenting student?

Both moves point to something disturbingly similar not only to some imagined Orwellian dystopia but to what Satrapi illustrated in Persepolis: the very real signs of a country undergoing a cultural revolution.

There are even some guardians of the revolution in our country: chest-thumping high-caste Hindu men who are guarding their fragile masculinity as much as their equally fragile sense of religious, political and national identity through this India that they’re trying to create.

My country has betrayed me.

There is something profoundly naive about that statement, because the only way you can experience betrayal is if you experienced belief. But I do. And, believe it or not, so do these students who are being condemned. I was having an intense and enlightening discussion with the student I mentioned earlier. I remember her saying, “Sure, a lot of things that happen in India are f*cked up. But it is not a country without hope.”

Her statement struck a chord with me- mostly because I’d forgotten that anybody besides me still believed.

And these people: the ones who still fight to create a country of liberty and equality, those abstract, almost unachievable dreams that were promised to us at the moment of this country’s inception, these are the ones being called anti-nationalist.

Strangely enough, it is in the self-appointed guardians’ action of trying to stop the reporting of the incidents of Patiala House by media-people present on the scene that I found encouraging: if they still fear that somewhere they will be held accountable for their actions by someone, then there is still hope.

Make India great again? Donald Trump would agree.

I wonder if Rohith Vemula or Soni Sori would.


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