The Idea of India is Not so Brittle as to Crumble at the Echo of a Few Slogans

Excerpts from a speech given by Trinamool Congress MP Sugata Bose, a noted historian and the grand-nephew of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose.

Subhas Chandra Bose (right) with Jawaharlal Nehru and Sarat Chandra Bose. Credit: Nehru Memorial Museum & Library

Subhas Chandra Bose (right) with Jawaharlal Nehru and Sarat Chandra Bose. Credit: Nehru Memorial Museum & Library

Reproduced below is the text of the speech made by Sugata Bose, grand nephew of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose and Trinamool Congress MP for Jadavpur, West Bengal in the Lok Sabha on February 24, 2016. 

I rise to speak in this highly charged and sensitive debate as someone who has been a teacher at universities for three-and-a-half decades. I hope that my colleagues in this august House will have the patience to listen to me. This is, after all, a forum for debate and discussion, as the president reminded us only yesterday.

Just over a month ago, a Dalit research scholar at Hyderabad Central University, Rohith Vemula tragically took his own life. The death of a bright young Dalit scholar is not new in Indian universities.  The Thorat Committee that was appointed in 2007 to investigate the growing number of suicides among students in elite educational institutions discovered that of the 23 suicide cases 19 were dalits, two tribals and one Muslim. This alarming figure should have raised several questions of academic justice and freedom that our nation needed to seriously ponder.

Rohith Vemula left us a poignant message when he chose to leave this unfair world.

In “the only letter” that he was going to write, he told us: “I always wanted to be a writer- a writer of science. Like Carl Sagan. I love science ….stars.” Rohith today is not dead. He lives up in the Heavens as a star “of purest ray serene” to serve as a beacon light to posterity.

Rohith’s tragedy should have stirred our collective conscience, including that of our government. Unfortunately, we have a heartless government that refuses to listen to the cries of despair coming from the marginalised sections of our society. Instead of assuring social justice to all, the ruling party wishes to use the student unrest in our universities to claim a monopoly on nationalism and tar all of their critics with the brush of “anti-nationalism”.

Madam Speaker, I am not a communist. In fact, I won this seat in the Lok Sabha by defeating a prominent communist candidate. But I stand today in support of the right to freedom of expression by young students who may be inspired by Marx as well as Ambedkar. Madam Speaker, I am a nationalist. I believe in a kind of nationalism that instils a spirit of selfless service in our people and inspires their creative efforts. But I know that nationalism can be a truly Janus-faced phenomenon and I deplore the brand of nationalism espoused by members of the treasury benches that I find narrow, selfish and arrogant.

Following the unrest in Hyderabad there were incidents that took place in Jawaharlal Nehru University, a University named after our great first Prime Minister. Earlier this month at one or two events on that campus very disturbing slogans were raised and deeply troubling posters were put up. We unequivocally condemn those slogans and posters. However, we strongly oppose the attempt being made to portray the entire university as a hub of anti-national activities and the onslaught of state forces on academic freedom. We were horrified to witness the scenes of students, teachers and journalists being assaulted within the court premises of Patiala House. It was not the students but the black-coated storm-troopers affiliated with the ruling party who defiled and desecrated the image of Mother India.

Criminalisation of dissent

Sugata Bose. Credit: YouTube

Sugata Bose. Credit: YouTube

The reverberations of the JNU incidents were felt in my home state, especially in Jadavpur University. There too unfortunate slogans were heard in the streets around the campus. But by contrast with what happened in the nation’s capital, the West Bengal state administration led by  Mamata Banerjee and the university administration knew how to defuse tension and to not unnecessarily escalate a crisis. It knew how not to overreact. After all, the idea of India is not so brittle as to crumble at the echo of a few slogans.

You cannot be a true nationalist if you are opposed to freedom. It is not a crime to seek freedom from caste oppression, freedom from class exploitation, freedom from gender discrimination. We must give our students and youth the freedom to think, the freedom to speak, the freedom to be idealistic, and, yet, the freedom to make mistakes, and learn from them. What must be avoided at all costs is the criminalisation of dissent.

I heard the speech given by Kanhaiya Kumar on YouTube. I agreed with many things that he said. I disagreed with some of the things that he said. I agreed with him when he extolled Ambedkar’s commitment to constitutional rights and constitutional morality. I agreed with him when he expressed admiration for our great revolutionaries like Bhagat Singh, Asfaquallah, Sukhdev and Rajguru. He, of course, said that the RSS took no part in our freedom struggle. There too he was right….(Interruption) but as a teacher I would have liked to have a discussion with him about history and I would have pointed out to him that even the Communists had actually taken part in the freedom struggle but also betrayed the freedom struggle at crucial moments during the 1942 movement and during the Azad Hind Movement led by Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose. So, we condemn the vigilantism of self-appointed protectors of the nation who are trying to create a climate of fear.

No sole spokesmen please

I stand for the right to free expression of my Communist friends and they will be speaking in this House soon afterwards. But we condemn the acts of vigilantism by self-appointed protectors of the nation which foments a climate of fear and I believe that students, teachers and university personnel must all be permitted to express opinions freely even if they conflict with the government’s political stances and the government must end the witch hunt for anti-nationals and the shameful scape-goating of university students. Why? It is because we believe that this witch-hunt is meant to distract the nation from issues necessary to the nation’s development such as employment opportunity and poverty alleviation. We insist that no group within the Indian polity or in its diaspora is the univocal spokesperson for the nation. History shows us that state-sponsored or state-condoned campaigns against so-called anti-nationals lead to authoritarian rule and the destruction of democratic principles. If universities and students are attacked, then the legacy of the anti-colonial freedom struggle and of democratic reconstruction is gravely undermined.

Madam, Speaker, we learn our lessons in nationalism from great figures like Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and Subhas Chandra Bose and those of us who are from Bengal are also inspired by what we have been taught about patriotism and nationalism by figures like Swami Vivekananda, Rabindranath Tagore, Deshbandhu Chittaranjan Das, Bipin Chandra Pal and Aurobindo Ghosh. I was wondering whose definition of nationalism might be acceptable to my friends in the treasury benches. I thought that at least I would try by citing before them the example of Aurobindo.

The issue of Kashmir kept coming up in the speech given by Shri Anurag Thakur. Now, it is incumbent on all of us who are the elected representatives of the Lok Sabha to give a greater sense of belonging to the Union of India among the people of Jammu and Kashmir and all of our far-flung States. The issue is about what kind of Indian Union do we want.

What did Aurobindo say about this? Aurobindo touched upon ‘the secret of the difficulty in the problem of unifying ancient India’. And he cited ancient texts. He said that the rishis from the Vedic age onwards, propounded ‘the ideal of the Chakravarti, a uniting imperial rule, uniting without destroying the autonomy of India’s many kingdoms and peoples from sea to sea’. The ruler was meant to establish a suzerainty. The ‘full flowering’ of this ideal, Aurobindo found in ‘the great epics’. The Mahabharata narrates the legendary and quasi-historic pursuit of this ideal of empire which even ‘the turbulent Shisupala’ is represented as accepting in his attendance at Yudhisthira’s dharmic. Rajasuya sacrifice. The Ramayana too presents ‘an idealized picture of such a Dharmarajya, a settled universal empire’. It is in Aurobindo’s words, ‘not an autocratic despotism but a universal monarchy supported by a free assembly of the city and provinces and of all the classes that is held up as the ideal’. He goes  on to say that according to his ideal unification ‘ought not to be secured at the expense of the free life of the regional peoples or of the communal liberties and not therefore by a centralized monarchy or a rigidly unitarian Imperial State”.

Centralised despotism

Now we are not a monarchy any more. We are a democracy but the nationalism that is being talked about from the other side of the House represents centralized despotism and it is talking about a rigidly unitarian imperial state.

I mentioned Rabindranath Tagore. Tagore composed our national anthem. But he was also a powerful critic of nationalism. He knew that nationalism could be both a boon and a curse. He wrote beautiful patriotic songs during our Swadeshi movement. But then he also saw that nationalism could lead to the carnage of war in Europe during the First World War. And that is why, when he travelled the world in 1916, he first went to Japan and then the United States of America, he gave lectures on nationalism and it was a powerful critique of nationalism that we find in those lectures. These lectures were published in a little book titled Nationalism, by MacMillan in 1917.

I sometimes fear that those who are defining nationalism so narrowly will end up one day describing Rabindranath Tagore, the composer of our national anthem, as anti-national if they read some of the sentences in his book on nationalism .…….(Interruptions).

We always had different visions of nationhood and it is really a debate and discussion about what should be an ideal form of the Union of India that has animated the thought of all the great figures that I have talked about.

Chittaranjan Das of course had debates with Rabindranath Tagore but they were respectful towards each other. Deshbandhu Chittaranjan Das felt that you could have a nationalism where you are very proud of Bengal, your region, but you can still be a very proud Indian nationalist at the same time. All of this of course has to flower in the garden of internationalism.

I know that Anurag Thakur tried to quote Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose even though he confused the two great Bengali luminaries, Netaji and Rabindranath Tagore, the patriot and the poet. When I said that the nationalism that they represent is narrow, selfish and arrogant, I was, in fact, quoting from Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose.

He spent a number of years in exile from 1933 to 1936 in Europe. As he was leaving and coming back to India to be imprisoned here, he pointed out the new German nationalism that he had witnessed in Europe was narrow, selfish and arrogant.

Then, in 1937 when Japan invaded China and at that time the Indian National Congress sent a medical mission to China, at that time too Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose said that we must pursue national fulfilment in every direction, but not at the cost of imperialism, and not at the price of self aggrandizement. So, we must understand that nationalism can have a liberating aspect. That is what inspired generations of our freedom fighters. But nationalism in its narrow form can also be extremely oppressive. This is a topic and a concept on which we ought to be able to have healthy debates.

The president, speaking to us yesterday, pointed out that this government is trying to repeal many obsolete laws. There are many colonial-era laws that need to be done away with from our statute book. I venture to suggest that the law on sedition is one of them. This was a law that was deployed to persecute our freedom fighters. We ought to be able to have a discussion with our children, with our students, with our youth. We ought not to be subjecting them to trumped up charges of sedition based on very dubious evidence, based on morphed visual evidence. We ought not to be doing this to our students and to our youth today.

Free our students

I have said what I have wanted to because it is not always necessary to make a long speech in order to stand for academic freedom. Free our universities, free our students, let our youth dream a glorious future for our country. I have mentioned that Tagore wrote this beautiful little book on nationalism. At the end of the book he printed an English rendering of a Bengali poem that he had composed on the last day of the 19th century. It says:

‘The last Sun of the century sets amidst the blood-red clouds of the West and the whirlwind of hatred. The naked passion of self-love of nations, in its drunken delirium of greed, is dancing to the clash of steel and the howling verses of vengeance. Keep watch India. Let your crown be of humility, your freedom the freedom of the soul. Build God’s throne daily upon the ample bareness of your poverty. And know that what is huge is not great and pride is not everlasting’.

From this poem, I would like to simply underline three phrases. Let us not be deluded by the naked passion of self-love of nations, let our freedom be the freedom of the soul and let us remember the admonition of the great sentinel that what is huge is not great and pride is not everlasting.

Thank you very much.


Featured image credit: Shome Basu

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