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JNU stir: Why ‘anti-nationalism’ is an empty abuse that has no place in a free society

Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel. The current rant against ‘anti-national’ slogans at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) highlights the abundance of scoundrels among Indian politicians and television anchors. The notion that there can be only one concept of what constitutes a nation, and that every other view is anti-national, is intellectually empty at best and authoritarian at worst.

Agitating students of JNU have called Maqbool Bhat and Afzal Guru (Kashmiris executed for murder) martyrs, and attacked the notion that India’s judicial system delivers justice. Some demand Kashmiri selfdetermination. Some even call for the break-up of India.

Gun vs Slogan

So what? You may disagree with these student slogans. But since when have students been a politically correct crowd mouthing patriotic hosannas? In all free societies, students have espoused all sorts of extreme positions, and must be free to do so. That is why they are called free societies.

Unfree societies are different. Communist China cracked down on Tiananmen Square and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt cracked down on Tahrir Square. But American students were at the very forefront of opposition to the Vietnam War. They rejected the government’s notion of patriotism.

Their right to dissent was not questioned even by those who condemned their views.

Oxford University is very establishment. But in 1933, the Oxford Union held a famous debate on the motion, ‘This house will in no circumstances fight for its King and country.’ The Union voted for the motion by 275 votes to 153. This ‘Oxford Pledge’ was later adopted by students at the universities of Manchester and Glasgow. This sent shock waves through Britain. The students were denounced as morons, cowards, anti-nationals and communist sympathisers.

But none dreamed of arresting the students for sedition. That puts in perspective the authoritarian interpretation of sedition by the NDA government. Worse is the ranting of media stars who ask in outrage how any student dare call for the break-up of India. They seem singularly ignorant of what a free society means.

The Scottish National Party (SNP) seeks to break away from Britain and form a separate Scottish nation. Are SNP leaders jailed for sedition? No. They have an honourable place in society, have been granted one referendum, and may soon get another.

Welsh nationalists also seek a separate Welsh country. Nobody dreams of jailing them.

In Canada, the Parti Québécois has long demanded independence for Quebec province, and this is treated not as sedition but a legitimate democratic demand. In Spain, the state of Catalonia has long had powerful secessionist parties, which in the 2015 state election won 47.8 per cent of the vote. The Spanish government strongly opposes Catalan independence, but doesn’t jail dissenters. France does not jail Corsican secessionists. The list goes on and on. Free societies do not jail non-violent secessionists.

India does. And that raises the question whether India wants to be a free society. And if not, why not.

Spain tolerates non-violent Catalans, but cracks down on terrorists using guns to create an independent Basque territory in the north. Britain cracked down on the Irish Republican Army (IRA), even as it gave legitimacy to the SNP. Free societies come down hard on those using or inciting violence, but bestow legitimacy on people advocating revolutionary change — even secession — through peaceful means.

Son of a Gun

They can hang a Maqbool Bhat for murder, but should not jail a JNU student leader for mere sloganeering.

India’s sedition law has been misused grossly for jailing a Tamil folk singer, sundry cartoonists, demonstrators against the Kudankulam power station, and even some people who simply ‘liked’ a Facebook post.

To me, these are all anti-national acts for which those in power should be held accountable. I reject the anti-national definition of the government.

In 1971, millions of Bangladeshis fled to India after a Pakistani Army crackdown. The Press Information Bureau (PIB) organised a trip for journalists to the refugee camps in West Bengal. I went for The Times. The PIB complained to my editor that I had asked “anti-national questions”.

I asked my editor what an anti-national question was. He had no idea. The PIB staff had urged us to ask questions like “Is the Pakistan Army bad?” and “Are you happy to get refuge in India?” I went much further. I asked whether the influx of refugees had caused job tensions with local people. Whether it had caused any Hindu-Muslim tension. And whether the refugees might abandon the camps and inundate Kolkata.

These questions, apparently, marked me as a traitor. The Times, sadly, played safe by not publishing my report. Then, two months later, the government organised a War Correspondents course for journalists, since a war with Pakistan was clearly coming. The Times nominated me for the course. The government rejected me, saying I was too anti-national to be trusted.

Ever since, I have seethed with rage at politicians, officials and media stars who define what patriotism is and condemn all others as anti-national. I know fully what is and what isn’t a free society. Patriotism is not merely the last refuge, but the first refuge of many scoundrels.

3 thoughts on “JNU stir: Why ‘anti-nationalism’ is an empty abuse that has no place in a free society”

  1. Mr Swaminathan, I can agree with what you are saying in this piece but if you are comparing the stuffs to US policy of not arresting anyone even after the protest against the Vietnam War and so called free society then the comparison should be weighed in all respects, which I am giving as follows -:

    (1) In US no one shouted for ‘US ki barbadi tak…….’
    (2) In US no one hailed Osama for whatever the dissent may be.
    (3) In US in the aftermath of 9/11 attacks, more than 1000 South Asians were detained and tortured in the most horrendous way which we did not do after 26/11 or any other such attacks.
    (4) In US just within 1-2 months of the 9/11 attack we have ‘Patriot Act’ which everybody knows how dangerous it is.
    (5) If freedom of speech is so important part of JNU then why they don’t allow any Israeli academician to deliver a lecture or hold a workshop there ??? Till date they had not allowed!!!

    Please explain to me these things because I get a sense of hypocrisy on the part of Leftists and I am sorry but from your article also, because then Praveen Togadi, Mohan Bhagawat, Sadhvi Prachi….etc . also have freedom of expression.

    No article in support of freedom of expression when Charlie Hebdo happened.
    No one supported Kamlesh Tiwari on the lines of freedom of expression.

    Why this double standard????????

    Don’t give me an answer that all above incites religious sentiments because the same can be said for Nationalist Sentiments and here even no. of people with nationalist sentiments is higher.

    So, please give me a rational answer to this without any hypocrisy ?????????????? if you have freedom of expression ?????????????????

  2. Hmm.. your views mean, in effect, nation-states must be ready to breakup as and when there are calls for breakup. And, that any efforts to safeguard the boundaries/territory of the nation are authoritarian. Which means, there cannot be and should not structures like Army. Similarly, there cannot be any boundary that is safeguarded. But is there any such nation-state, that is ready to breakup in this way? Can that be USA, UK, China, Russia…….?

  3. Bireshwar Banerjee

    The best alternative is to close down obscure Marxist conclaves such as JNU. I have yet not come across a JNU student who contributes to society meaningfully. Like IIM’s, IIT’s etc. Or start vocational courses in JNU. Let students feel that bread and butter and not Government largesse is what makes a nation.

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