By Ayesha Ray
I was first exposed to the odious use of the word ‘anti-national’ in the Spring of 2016. I was on sabbatical at JNU, my alma mater, teaching a course on World Politics when the university came under siege by BJP and Bajrang Dal thugs. The genesis of events, that unfolded in the next few difficult months, was an open debate on the hanging of Afzal Guru, one of the prime accused in the 2001 December attacks on the Indian Parliament. What was meant to be an open forum and a safe space to discuss controversial and uncomfortable issues was, unfortunately, hijacked by a group of non-JNU students who raised disturbing slogans against Indian sovereignty. This set in motion a series of developments that would test India’s strength, endurance and maturity as a democracy. The BJP’s student wing, ABVP, called for a shut-down of the university, the university administration buckled under pressure, innocent students including JNUSU President Kanhaiya Kumar were charged, without evidence, with sedition (that carries a life sentence), and Indian TV news anchors, in a show of faux nationalism, joined hands in assaulting India’s most liberal university. Completely unaccountable and upending journalistic standards of objectivity, they actively distorted facts, spread lies and propaganda. Zee News and Times Now under the aegis of Arnab Goswami took the lead in spreading malicious propaganda. JNU was blacklisted. It was branded an anti-national university. Bajrang dal mobs waited outside the university gates for any opportunity to lynch, beat, thrash a JNU faculty or student. Professors were heckled by police outside Delhi courts, some even beaten. The fear on campus among students and faculty was palpable. Anyone who stood in solidarity with JNU and wished to reclaim the freedom to disagree with authoritarian governance was labelled an anti-national. How did a nation founded on Gandhian and Nehruvian principles regress to such abysmal lows?
This was not the first time JNU had courted controversy. JNU has always fostered a strong tradition of questioning blind authority, allowing students to participate in forums that discuss the most divisive and polemical issues without the fear of being attacked, assaulted, or lynched for their opinions. You are not expected to agree with everything (as a former student in the late 1990s, I certainly did not, always) but the ethos of JNU was that you would not be threatened or physically hurt for your views. JNU has always been a target of right-wing politics for pursuing social justice causes, for championing the cause of oppressed masses, Dalits, other backward classes, minority students, or giving marginalized communities a voice. This time, however, things were different. This time, the fear of innocent students being murdered for dissenting or holding views contrary to the country’s dominant nationalist strain was real and frightening. These were certainly dark times. And only those who worked and lived in JNU understood the severity of the assault on liberal thought.
The JNU episode ushered in a toxic phase where the word ‘anti-national’ gained alarming popularity and recognition even among India’s supposedly educated classes. Corrosive effects of this word took different forms: from statements made in “jest,” to vicious online abuse to disingenuous whataboutery to mob lynching. Social media was rife with abuse towards anyone who even suggested the mildest critique of government policy. Even daughters of former soldiers, who had served the nation with honor, were not spared for their views on war and peace; one such student and daughter, Gurmehar Kaur, was threatened with rape by India’s self-styled muscular patriarchs supposedly defending the glory of a country they seemed too eager to deface. Along with “libtard,” “sickular,” and “presstitute,” “anti-national” joined the currency of vile epithets replacing any civil dialogue, raising questions about the future of Indian nationalism. Such is the deplorable state of affairs that a country mesmerized by fake godmen-turned-politicians is now increasingly moving towards a dangerous future where the “othering” of communities and religious minorities has turned into the new normal. Cows are being defended more vociferously than women facing online abuse and Muslims not engaged in cattle trade or directly responsible for cow-slaughter are being lynched to death on mere suspicion. Reason, logic, and civility is quickly vanishing from public space which is being overrun by a virulent form of majoritarian divisive nationalism that thrives on ignorance and barbarism to silence differences and muzzle plurality.
So who exactly is an anti-national? Is it someone who loves their country enough to criticize it? Or is it someone whose love of country translates into abusing, raping, or promptly issuing death threats to anyone who disagrees with the majority opinion? Patriots on the left have a strong argument to make. Relentless attacks on any form of free, rational, evidence-based debate by the Hindu right and quite a few confused liberals do pose a serious threat to India’s multicultural ethos. One could easily argue here, using logic of course, that the anti-national is not the one who critiques xenophobic and authoritarian majoritarianism, but instead is the one who fosters it and weaponizes words to attack and weaken Indian secularism and democracy. In an environment where manufacturing odious and divisive words reduce the space for engagement and dialogue, Indian civil society needs to remain conscious and actively defend the space for open dialogue and critical thinking, lest it become a country of only thugs and mobs.
Ayesha Ray is Associate Professor of Political Science at King’s College, Pennsylvania, USA. She is the author of The Soldier and the State in India: Nuclear Weapons, Counterinsurgency, and the Transformation of Indian Civil-Military Relations (SAGE, 2013) and Culture, Context, and Capability: American and Indian Counterinsurgency Approaches (IDSA, 2017) in addition to several book chapters and articles in international publications. She has a Ph.D. in Political Science from The University of Texas at Austin.
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