Just as the white man once took upon himself the burden of civilising Indians, the present government has committed itself to the task of turning Indians into nationalists. The assumption being, of course, that Indians have been insufficiently nationalist till now. And the method identified to accomplish the mission is to inculcate reverence and fear for the armed forces. As the current Chief of Army Staff (COAS) Bipin Rawat has proclaimed, “people have to be afraid of us.” This marks a distinct shift in the relation between the Indian nationalist imaginary and the armed forces. The figure of the soldier has been transformed from that of a servant of the people, paid with public money for protecting the nation, to that of a pedagogue giving citizens lessons in nationalism.
The latest instance of military worship has been a request from the Vice Chancellor (VC) of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), M Jagadesh Kumar, to procure an Indian Army tankfor display in the campus. He plans to install it at a prominent spot to instil nationalist feelings among students and remind them “constantly” of “the great sacrifices and valour of theIndian Army.” His request was directed at union ministersV K Singh and Dharmendra Pradhan gracing the Kargil Vijay Diwas celebrations—the first ever in JNU. This proposal follows a series of ingenuous formulae meant to transform “seditious” students into patriots. About a year ago, former HumanResource Development Minister Smriti Irani insisted on installing national flags in all central universities. She soon learnt that one such flag has been flying in JNU for a long time. Disappointed, she then floated the idea of inviting militaryofficers to lecture students on nationalism. But as luck would have it, she was soon asked to focus on textiles instead. Itgoes without saying that the present government has littleunderstanding of what universities are meant for. But thediscursive shift that has transformed soldiers into demigods is far more alarming. If pushed, it has the potential to threaten democratic institutions.
There is nothing new in the figure of the soldier standing as a metaphor for patriotism. But Indian nationalism, given its anti-colonial origins, remained uncomfortable with the armed forces it inherited from colonial rulers. In the early years ofindependence, it was, in fact, projected as a purely professional force under strict civilian control. The ideal nationalistremained either the khadi-clad satyagrahi or the death-defying revolutionary. Today, both have been replaced with the soldier.
Former Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri floated theslogan “Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan” during the Indo–Pak war in 1965. It was meant to enthuse soldiers demoralised by the 1962Sino–Indian war. But the jawan was placed alongside the kisan as an ideal servant of the nation. By the time the slogan was extended to “Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan, Jai Vigyan” by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Indian nationalism had become synonymous with hyper-militarism. The nuclear tests at Pokhran in 1998 provided the context this time, audaciously announcing India’s arrival as a full-fledged nuclear weapons state. Between the two slogans, a war had been fought in 1971 and the first nuclear tests had been conducted in 1974. But, by the late-1990s, even the hollow pretence of India’s commitment to peace and disarmament was given up. Unsurprisingly, army tanks as a pedagogic tool have been invoked while commemorating the Kargil war of 1999.
Today, celebration of military personnel as ideal nationalists has also accompanied political interference in the functioning of the armed forces. Two officers were superseded in the appointment of the current COAS Bipin Rawat. While out-of-turn promotions of political favourites are not new—one is reminded of Arun Vaidya’s appointment to the same post during Indira Gandhi’s time—the leverage given to the present army chief to make public pronouncements without restraint is exceptional indeed. His shocking statements justifying, for example, the use of human shields in Kashmir have attracted no censure. In fact, public criticisms have only elicited counter-charges ofanti-nationalism.
An army tank has existed inside the North Bengal University campus for more than 40 years. However, the symbolismthere is entirely different. It is a Pakistan army tank captured during the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War by the Indian Army. It celebrates India’s military victory over an externalenemy. But the JNU VC has asked for an Indian Army tankinside a university widely slandered by today’s self-proclaimed nationalists as an anti-national bastion. If there is still any doubt about its implications, the speeches of some of theother guests of honour at the Kargil celebrations in JNU quickly dispel them. Ex-cricketer Gautam Gambhir declared that civilians have no right to question the army. Writer Rajiv Malhotra described the event as a celebration not only of “taking over Kargil in the external war, but also of taking over JNU in the internal war.” Retired army officer G D Bakshi declaredthat they must not stop with the capture of JNU, but should now attack the “fortresses” of Jadavpur University andHyderabad Central University. These were statements voiced in a public function in the presence of the VC. It is clear thattoday, under the current dispensation, the celebration ofmilitarism and its projection as the highest expression ofnationalism has reached its maturity since its turn-of-the-century inflections.