Why Involving Ex-Servicemen in the JNU Controversy is Potentially Toxic

The Indian fauj by its apolitical nature remains the last bastion. Maintaining this equipoise is imperative.

Ex-servicemen and students pay homage to soldiers of the Indian Army and victims of the Parliament attack at a meeting organised by ABVP on the JNU campus in New Delhi on Wednesday. Credit: PTI Photo by Vijay Verma

Ex-servicemen and students pay homage to soldiers of the Indian Army and victims of the Parliament attack at a meeting organised by ABVP on the JNU campus in New Delhi on Wednesday. Credit: PTI Photo by Vijay Verma

The controversy triggered by anti-national sloganeering on the Jawaharlal Nehru University campus on February 9 – attributed by campus residents to an outsider group – has snowballed into a bitter and emotive national debate outside and inside parliament.

JNU has become a no-holds barred/no-quarter given, zero-sum battle over what constitutes ‘nationalism’ and how supposed transgressions from the ‘norm’ must be dealt with.

Many institutions have joined this charged debate and some among them stand compromised or tainted. Here the conduct of the Delhi Police and the lawyers who resorted to vigilantism in Patiala House and attacked JNU Students Union president Kanhaiya Kumar are a case in point. Some media houses have also been guilty of the most deplorable lowering of professional standards.

By unfortunate happenstance, the JNU controversy erupted around the time when uniformed personnel have lost their lives in counter-terrorism operations and both Pathankot and Pampore have become synonymous with the surge of patriotic fervour – particularly in the audio-visual and social media. An avalanche in Siachen led to the tragic loss of more lives during the same period, including Lance Naik Hanumanthappa, who defied nature and the odds to survive – briefly – before he too alas, succumbed and was mourned by India.

Given this charged national mood and the anger over the anti-national slogans at JNU that was stoked by some constituencies, it was predictable that one cross-section of ex-servicemen would wade into the national debate and become the guardians of nationalism and the national flag, especially on TV debates.  Every night, India has been witness to a surfeit of righteous indignation over the university’s many transgressions – some going back over the last 15 years – with this group of veterans demanding atonement and more.

Pitting soldier against student

In an adroit manner, the brave soldier was pitted against the ungrateful student (whose guilt has yet to be established) by some manipulative media outlets.  It is nobody’s case that anti-national activity should be condoned. Yet it is a matter of both regret and shame that the Indian political establishment has used national security in an opportunistic manner.

As part of the corrective, it has now been mandated that the national flag will fly atop every central university campus. Even the height of the flagpole has been stipulated. When this was announced by the HRD minister, the reaction on campus was ‘but we have always had the national flag flying from the admin block so what is this all about ?’

The national flag has always flown high at JNU. Credit: Shome Basu

The national flag has always flown high at JNU. Credit: Shome Basu

To instil even greater nationalism,  a group of veterans recently met the JNU administration and suggested that an Army memorial to commemorate the lives of those who lost their lives fighting for the country be erected on campus – and that a tank could also be included as part of this visual symbolism to teach students to love their country.

This intervention by some veterans, however well-meaning and emotionally intense, is imprudent and has the potential to dilute the apolitical nature of the Indian military – which remains its most admirable and distinctive trait since 1947.

Over the past seven decades, rank political opportunism and the lowering of professional rectitude has led to a weakening of national institutions across the board. Beginning with Indira Gandhi in the mid-1970s and the dark emergency phase, the bureaucracy, police, and lower judiciary have progressively been weakened and subverted for short-term political advantage. Subservience to the political dispensation of the day became the norm and career-advancement carrots were dangled as incentive.

The rot that started in Delhi spread to the states and education soon became the hand-maiden of politics. The deterioration of educational standards in India and the increasing politicisation of education per se, including rampant privatisation is reflective of this corrosive trend. In short, political compulsions have led to a distortion of constitutional obligations in relation to institutional probity and this malignancy is most stark in the case of the Indian police and lower judiciary.

The JNU controversy which could have been contained – if left to the university administration – snowballed largely due to the political overtones it acquired, starting with the manner in which student organisations closer to the ideology of the BJP were allowed to set the agenda. The alacrity with which the local police invoked sedition charges was a direct product of this process.

Military must remain in its domain

The current involvement of military veterans – even though modest in numbers – has the potential to introduce a political and ideological tenor into the Indian military through osmosis. While Prime Minister Modi himself has repeatedly asserted that the Indian constitution is his guiding document and that there is no other holy book for the government, the national debate and churning that is now symbolised by the JNU controversy has deeply divisive overtones.

Is the majoritarian (Hindu) sentiment the new lodestar of the Indian polity? And if indeed it does prevail at the hustings, what should the orientation of the Indian military be? Nurturing the abiding, inclusive national identity and defending the principles embedded in the constitution – that are above any single political party or socio-religious organisation – require an apolitical and professional military. The institution demonstrated its constitutional fibre in the run up to the emergency imposed by Indira Gandhi; General Tappi Raina, who was army chief at the time, drew the line – courteously but firmly.

The military must remain within the constitutional space accorded to it and veterans would be well-advised to let teachers instil the values that students need to acquire – including a critical faculty – in a constructive manner. Universities, in turn, would be equally well-advised to evolve their own guidelines and norms to avoid denigration of the nation.

Today, one group of veterans is incensed over the anti-national slogans attributed to JNU and advocate a certain prescription. What if another were to take umbrage at what happened in Patiala House and recommend even more muscular redress?

The Indian fauj by its apolitical nature remains the last bastion – as recent events in Haryana demonstrated. Maintaining this equipoise is imperative. Advocating the displaying of tanks on university campuses may generate TV ratings, but will do little to further the cause of the nation.

C Uday Bhaskar is Director, Society for Policy Studies