Aggressive campaigns of narrow nationalism are being furthered by institutionalised biases against minorities. A new politics is needed to counter it.
One could easily empathise with the tortuous, even torturous, manner in which Rajya Sabha member Javed Akhtar tried to formulate his strong opposition to Asaduddin Owaisi’s assertion that one is free not to say ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’. Owaisi kicked up a storm by arguing he would rather say ‘Jai Hind’ or ‘Sare Jahan se Achcha Hindustan Hamara’ in response to RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat’s call for the mandatory utterance of the slogan ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’ as the sole test of patriotism. In a way, the call given by Bhagwat had both Owaisi and poet-lyricist Javed Akhtar fall into a familiar trap. Later, even Congress fell for it.
Given the nature of his politics, Owaisi had to respond aggressively to the RSS chief’s call, for Owaisi’s politics and that of the Sangh Parivar feed off each other, consolidating each others’ constituencies while shrinking the middle ground. Javed Akhtar also fell for it when he skirted the primary question of whether there is an obligation on his part to say ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’. He simplistically argued, “I don’t know whether it is my bounden duty to chant ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’. I don’t even want to know that. All I know is it is my right to chant ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai.’
Thus the poet and lyricist avoided the key political/constitutional question whether anyone can be forced to chant a slogan by signifying it as the sole manifestation of patriotism. Later, he was pointedly asked the same question at the India Today conclave –can anyone be forced to chant ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’? Here Akhtar became more nuanced and said even if Owaisi had the right not to do so he should have expressed it in a less confrontational manner. So it was the form he was objecting to, not so much the content!
It was interesting to note the convoluted manner in which Akhtar was making his complex argument. He was then aided by his wife Shabana Azmi who said in a lighter vein, “I want to ask Owaisi whether he is willing to say ‘Bharat Ammi Ki Jai’. Clearly, humans often have to torture language itself to get to delicate truths. One can well understand Javed Akhtar’s predicament. For it is far less risky today for a Hindu to exercise his/her constitutional right not to say ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’. Politics has been reduced to such a travesty, and a dangerous one at that.
Evidently, it is not easy to be a Muslim in today’s political climate where the flip side of aggressive nationalism is institutionalised baiting of the Muslim community. Consequently, Muslims are expected to prove their patriotism more vocally at every step. Such is the climate being created that it leads to anxiety across walks of life. This was apparent during the recent JNU protests against the arrests of Kanhaiya, Anirban and Umar Khalid. Among all those who felt the students were unjustifiably arrested on charges of sedition, there was greater anxiety about Umar Khalid. One’s faith in the judiciary, a bit shaky of late, was somewhat restored when Khalid was released on interim bail.
Khalid was quick to point out how the police had specially questioned him on his patriotism. The narrow nationalism of the current dispensation is both feeding off and fuelling such institutional bias. At the same time this narrow definition of nationalism makes it possible for BJP ally Akali Dal to officially request the release of Punjab terrorists convicted for life without any fear of being perceived as anti-national. Double standards pervade the current debate on these issues.
Last week the police in Chittorgarh prevented a potential Dadri-type situation when it kept under detention eight Kashmiri Muslim students who were cooking buffalo meat in their hostel on a holiday. These students were admitted under a special scholarship given out by the Prime Minister’s Office. Their simple act of cooking meat caused a furore as agitated Bajrang Dal activists and members of a lesser known group, the Vande Mataram Sena, gathered at the college gates in protest. Police said they took the Kashmiri boys away to protect them. Later they were released after signing an undertaking that they would not violate the private rules of the hostel (which did not allow cooking meat inside). But, as is becoming a regular pattern with law enforcement agencies, the Bajrang Dal activists who threatened the Kashmiri students went scot free.
Ideally, opposition parties are expected to protest against the institutional bias in state apparatus’ like the police. However, the main opposition, the Congress party, is itself appearing somewhat ambivalent in the face of such assault on basic freedoms of the minorities and other underprivileged groups. The Congress support for the BJP-Shiv Sena combine’s move to suspend Maharashtra MLA Waris Pathan over the issue of saying ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’ shows confusion in the main opposition ranks. If Congress persists with this lack of ideological clarity, it may start looking like the BJP’s B team.
Congress must draw upon the rich and inclusive interpretation of nationalism from the ideas of Gandhi and Tagore. In such trying times, the Congress leadership must have the courage to denounce the false binaries around nationalism being constructed by the Sangh Parivar. A devout Hindu, Gandhi’s nationalism was based on his concept of enlightened self-control and self -development (swaraj) which sought to build a harmonious society. Tagore also spoke against masculine hyper-nationalism, seeing such nationalism as “passion without compassion, of an unfeeling negative bond between the self and the other.” These are the ideas that the Congress needs to connect with – ideas that are part of its history – if it wants to remain relevant in Indian politics.