The judiciary has been called upon to step in. It must be hoped that those who man the bench have come a long way from the time when the court felt that a death sentence was needed to ease the national conscience.
Recollect George Orwell and his wonderful 1946 essay, ‘Politics and the English Language’. Recall his warning about the use of language in political discourse: “Political language… is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” Orwell needs to be recalled to understand how the issues are being framed in the JNU battle, in particular the tendentious juxtapositioning of “martyred” jawans and the university dissenters. In the short-hand language of the television anchor, it is about taking sides in the “Nine Martyrs versus Five Anti-Nationals” fight.
The dictionary meaning of the word “martyr” is “someone who chooses to be put to death as an act of witness to their faith, rather than abandon his or her religious beliefs.” In military vocabulary, a soldier who dies in a battlefield, fighting the enemy, is honoured and remembered as a martyr. The preferred word in India is shaheed, as in the hauntingly memorable song sung by Lata Mangeshkar: ‘Jo shaheed huen hain unki/zara yaad karo qurbani’. Death on the battlefield, in face-to-face combat with the enemy, in defence of motherland. The most glorious death a soldier could wish for.
Using soldiers as political pawns
However, to pit the nine soldiers who lost their lives in an avalanche in the treacherous heights of Siachen against the JNU dissenters is definitely a bit of an Orwellian stretch. The death of a solider is a national loss, any day, any place. Nonetheless, every commander who has led his men in a battlefield would know the difference: laying down one’s life fighting and defying the enemy is one kind of death, for which he recommends a medal for his dead comrade, and an accidental death is in another category. Both are to be mourned, yet the two are separated by acts of bravery, valour and heroism. To confuse the two, or to equate the two diminishes the glorious martyrdom of the Major Shaitan Singhs and Havildar Abdul Hamids.
Any language that is not able to make a distinction between fighting the enemy and fighting the elements unwittingly lends itself to a larger project of militarisation of popular culture and political debate. Every thinking and serving or retired general would be feeling uncomfortable at this gross exaggeration of the loss.
Even more disquieting to all sober and sensible generals would be the enlisting of “martyred” soldiers in an ugly political battle that is not only ideological but against the grain of constitutional and republican values. The martyred jawans are being recruited as posthumous foot soldiers by political leaders who flaunt their spurious deshbhakti. The army as an institution must do everything possible to remain immune from this contamination.
The soldier who enlists in the armed forces undertakes – willingly and cheerfully – to fight and, if need be, lay down his life in defence of his motherland. He does not enlist himself to be made a pawn in the partisan battles among partisan politicians, each pretending to be a better deshbhakt and rashtravadi than the other.
The question that we must be asking ourselves is this: why as a nation do we seem to be succumbing to the vendors of nervous nationalism? Why are we re-fighting battles that we have already fought and won? India’s unity, our sense of nationhood, our self-assurance and our capability to get the better of our detractors have long been established. We are far too sturdy, far too self-assured, far too resilient to feel threatened by a few “anti-national” slogans on the sprawling campus of Jawaharlal Nehru University. We have always lived with pockets of secessionism. And we can take legitimate pride in the knowledge that Indian democracy has successfully co-opted yesterday’s secessionists. Even in Jammu and Kashmir, the BJP is in alliance with a political party that 15 years ago would have been dubbed “secessionist”. And this alliance has been mid-wifed by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh!
A definite intent seems to be at work in making a great and prolonged political spectacle out of the “anti-national” slogans. Some may find unconscionable the inspired ugliness that was on display at the Patiala House court but it does seem to be part of a political and electoral strategy. The agenda is to draw wider and wider, what Milan Kundera calls the “national circle of intimacy”. The ruling establishment would demand that every artist, writer, intellectual, journalist, architect, painter and scholar enter this national circle of intimacy. And those who refuse or demur from entering this circle should be made to feel the Delhi police commissioner’s baton.
Familiar ring of majoritarianism
From Dadri to Hyderabad to JNU, the country is being subjected to majoritarian demands. In Dadri, those speaking in the name of the majority asserted a right to determine what one could eat or not eat; in Hyderabad they insisted on defining who is a Dalit and who is not; and in JNU, they are clamorously reserving the right to sit in judgment over this or that citizen’s national loyalty. There is a familiar ring to these kind of insistent demands. European history is replete with blood and genocide because of demands made by organised thugs in the name of this or that majority. Eastern European countries still continue to experiment with the exacting and ugly terms of co-existence among communities.
Only a few months ago, the country found itself engaged in a fierce debate over ‘intolerance’. A handful of people speaking in the name of the majority arrogated to themselves the exclusive licence to decide what was to be allowed, how much was to be “tolerated”. That round between the illiberal and intolerant forces and the liberal and progressive voices subsided only after the functionaries of the Supreme Court assured the people that their protection would always be available for democratic values and dissent.
The battle has been renewed again. The only difference this time is the invocation of “national” themes. Who is a “national” and who is not “national” is be decided by the likes of OP Sharma. “Sedition” has been bandied about all too easily and all too glibly.
Judicial decision-making, hopefully, will maintain its distance from the dramas being enacted in the streets across the nation.
Above all, the quality and content of our nationalism cannot be dictated to by demagogues. Nor can our nationalism be sustained and extracted by the state’s coercive instruments. Those driven by vote-bank politics should not be allowed to demean and diminish the nobility of Indian nationalism. The judiciary has been called upon to step in. It must be hoped that those who man the bench, individually and collectively, have come a long way from the time when the court felt that a death sentence was needed to ease the national conscience.
Harish Khare is Editor-in-Chief of The Tribune
Courtesy: The Tribune