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India – What must be avoided at all costs is the criminalisation of dissent

FREETMC MP Sugata Bose, a noted historian who was Gardiner Chair of Oceanic History and Affairs at Harvard University, spoke in the LS debate on nationalism versus freedom to dissent. He is also the grandnephew of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose. Excerpts from his address:

Madam Speaker, I rise to speak in this highly charged and sensitive debate as someone who has been a teacher at universities for threeand-a-half decades…. 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 were 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’s tragedy should stir 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 same 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.

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. 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 JNU. Earlier this month, at one or two events on this 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, Madam Speaker, but the blackcoated storm-troopers associated with the ruling party (who) defiled and desecrated the image of mother India.

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 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… 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 statement on constitutional rights and constitutional morality. I agreed with him when he expressed admiration for our great revolutionaries Bhagat Singh, Ashfaqulla, Sukhdev and Rajguru. He, of course, said that RSS took no part in our freedom struggle. There too, he was right.

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 Bose. So we condemn the vigilantism of self-appointed protectors of the nation who are trying to create a climate of fear.

The nationalism that is being talked about from the other side of the House represents centralised despotism and it is talking about a rigidly unitarian imperial state. I mentioned Tagore. Tagore composed our national anthem but he was also a powerful critic of nationalism. He knew that nationalism can be both a boon and a curse. I sometimes fear that those who are defining nationalism so narrowly will end up one day describing Tagore, the composer of our national anthem, as anti-national, if they read some of these sentences in his book on nationalism…

Free our universities, free our students, let our youth dream a glorious future for our country. And I had mentioned that Tagore wrote this beautiful little book on nationalism, and at the end of the book, he printed an English rendering of a Bengali poem that he had composed on the last day on the 19th century:

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 underline three phrases: let us not be deluded by the naked passion of selflove 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.

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