Kanhaiya Kumar, president of JNU students’ Union, arrested on the charge of sedition by the Delhi police, was granted interim bail for six months on March 2 by the Delhi High Court. Surprisingly, the high court also added strange conditions to the bail order to ensure that Kanhaiya Kumar did not indulge in ‘anti-national’ activities during the bail period. And even more amusingly, the order began with a patriotic song from the original Bharat, Manoj kumar’s film! If that was not sad enough, the order further talked about an ‘infection’ spreading across students in the country that needed to be controlled before it became an epidemic. And finally, it almost petitioned the JNU faculty to ensure that students were brought in the mainstream of nation building, whatever… it was as if the virus of nationalism that the BVP-RSS-BJP have been pushing down our throat so intimidatingly these days has infected the high court judge as well. As if for the Delhi high court judge, these young adult students – all the accused students are very senior research students – were not independent minds capable of thinking on their own but the herd to be shepherded in a desirable direction!
Even as Kanhaiya Kumar is back to JNU after bail, two other students, Umar and Anirban remain in judicial custody and now one has to wait and see how and when they are released on bail. In any case, Kanhaiya kumar’s release on bail ends the first stage of this epic drama that began on Feb 9 and escalated from Feb 12 onwards soon after Kanhaiya Kumar was arrested by the Delhi police. In this period, we have had an unending battle of nerves and words between those who support Kanhaiya Kumar and the JNU on one hand and the nationalist brigade of the ABVP-BJP-RSS combine enthusiastically supported by their henchmen among the media, the police and the lawyers on the other. While this debate is yet to conclude and the role of the judiciary remains under watch, there are some crucial lessons that these events of the last almost four weeks have taught us. These are:
First, the assault on so-called elite institutions of higher education, now looks like a part of a plan to provoke the left-liberal elements within and to shift the grounds of debate in favour of the powers-that-be. The deafening noise from the Right accompanying these attacks is meant to publicly discredit these publicly funded institutions and question their role and relevance in making of the nation however Modi government defines it. The central idea seems to be to reduce the role of higher education to vocational education with no meaningful debates around larger ideas of nation, state, society, citizenship and rights. Since these elite institutions are at the centre of these debates, discrediting them would automatically shrink these debates as well or so the present wisdom believes.
Second, the assault on these institutions is not only to discredit them but also to warn other institutions which are not so important and visible to be on their guard and discipline themselves. In the process, the attempt is to strengthen the dominance of a particular (RSS) vision of the nation and education across the country through intimidation and other means. In any case, we need to remember that the public space for these political debates in many of our public institutions of higher education is quite limited. Besides, India already has the largest private sector in higher education in the world where by and large, the space for public and political debates is absent and students and teachers learn and teach under corporate-like regulations. In addition, the self-financing nature of these institutions ensures that students look at this education primarily as a financial investment and behave accordingly.
Third, this assault, coupled with a series of vicious attacks on the NGOs, critical of the present Modi government, in the guise of asking them to account for foreign funds they have relieved over years, is meant to shrink the larger public space for dissent, debate and discussion across the spectrum over how this government is actually functioning. (After all, by all accounts, the RSS and its affiliates also receive enormous amount of support from foreigners, the NRIs, and one wonders about their accountability as well.)
Fourth, I think it is not correct to suggest that this assault is meant to shift the debate away from the economy because on that front the government does not have much to show for all its blabber. Instead, I would suggest that this determined assault on dissent and diversity is a corollary of the economic framework that this government wants to put in place. This framework of integrating Indian economy at all levels with the global market economy with all its consequences demands that the government also deals with all possible dissent and unrest with an iron hand. Thus, this assault is meant to facilitate this integration over time. (The most illustrious and terrifying example of this is the present chhatisgarh government of the BJP.)
Fifth, this assault is also a violent response of a frightened elite in power which desperately wants to check and throttle the rise of the new social and political alignments on the horizon. Not surprisingly, young women in public places, Ambedkarite Dalit students in public universities, and the young men and women demanding more personal and social freedoms about work and love are at the receiving end of the present order.
After all, the present government represents the most regressive and aggressive forces of the Indian society in the recent times. This government of ‘sab ka Saath,, sab ka vikas’ is the most exclusionary government in its vision of power. The present PMO has dwarfed the entire cabinet like never before (except during the emergency) and its social vision is entirely shaped by the back room boys of the RSS.
Sixth, this government is caught in a serious bind. At one level, it is deeply committed to the RSS. Not only has Modi himself been a prominent RSS pracharak but also the RSS guides and dictates to this government in a manner that is quite unprecedented. At another level, however farcical it may be, this government is under oath to defend the constitution of India. The double speak that this conflict necessitates means that the government and the party cannot always control what its minions and ministers publicly declare and do. This situation has exposed its inner contradictions so often that either way the government is repeatedly accused of not doing enough.
Seventh, to add to its complications, there are other pillars of the nation that this government cannot quite control: the media, the judiciary and the political parties in opposition. This is not to suggest that all these are always deeply committed to the constitution. On the contrary, these pillars are deeply divided among themselves as the recent incidents demonstrated. However, substantial sections among these are still very committed to constitutional values. And this government is finding it very difficult to declare war on all fronts.
These lessons inform us that there is a determined political strategy to reshape the idea of India and the nation by the present government. Though this strategy has been visible for a long time – ever since the Babri masjid was demolished in December 1992- it is the BJP majority in Loksabha in 2014 elections that has given this government the added political and administrative control to push this strategy so forcefully. And yet, the government is finding to its dismay that this task is far more difficult than it might have visualised. Even though the government has many allies on its side, it has a very diverse set of enemies as well. How the balance between the two tilts during the term of this Loksabha will very likely determine which idea of India will define the future.