– Meena Kandasamy
Meena Kandasamy is a poet, fiction writer, translator and activist who lives in Chennai and London.
Recently, the vice chancellor of India’s most prominent educational institution, the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) announced plans to set up a war memorial and install a decommissioned tank on campus. In his view, these measures would “constantly remind students about […] the great sacrifices and valour of the Indian Army” and “show our strong and close association with defence institutes of the country”.
JNU’s Vice Chancellor Mamidala Jagadesh Kumar (aka BattleTank Kumar) is the latest proponent of Project Patriotism and by far is not a pioneer in this quixotic quest. A self-conscious fragility has marked the Indian national integration dream since the birth of this nation, and it is a fragility that is sought to be offset by aggressive military posturing and a conspicuous brand of patriotism.
Last year, in November 2016, the Supreme Court observed that “people should feel that they live in a nation and show respect to the national anthem and the national flag,” ruling that the national anthem had to be played before any film screening in India. Cinema doors are to be locked and cinemagoers are to stand while the anthem is played.
In the southern state of Kerala, at least a dozen people were arrested in December for not standing up while the national anthem was played during screenings at an international film festival. Those who published a cartoon on this issue were reproved for being anti-national by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Last week, the High Court of Madras ruled that singing Vande Mataram (an Indian national song) must be made compulsory in schools and offices in Tamil Nadu state to “instil a sense of patriotism in each and every citizen”.
|A schoolgirl tries to climb out of a Schilka tank as others stand on it during an exhibition organised by the Indian army in the northern Indian city of Chandigarh [Reuters/Ajay Verma]|
Far from being an organisational mutual back-scratching exercise in which different arms of the state machinery look out for each other, the bogey of patriotism has provided a convenient platform to right-wing Hindutva organisations like the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and the BJP. After all, such spirited cheerleading of war brings us closer to becoming a Hindu nation: imagine the battle tank on a university campus that will be garlanded with marigolds, Sanskrit prayers being chanted around it to mark the occasion of Ayudha Pooja (a traditional Hindu festival, part of the festival of triumph). Weapons worship is not a new entry to Hinduism, and fits in very well with the hypermasculine, aggressive Hindu image that the RSS wants for this nation. Unsurprisingly, JNU’s Vice Chancellor Kumar has had links with the RSS.
In India, to be a patriot is to not merely to love one’s land of birth. Under the present political climate, it means being sucked into the grotesque military industrial complex. It means borders and wars, it means enemies and loyalties, it means dismissing any criticism of the nation-state or its political representatives as anti-national.
Dalit students at the University of Hyderabad who spoke out against the death penalty were labelled anti-national and were expelled from their hostels – and that ostracising and administrative hounding led to the suicide of Rohith Vemula. In the JNU, students like Kanhaiya Kumar, Umar Khalid and Anirban Bhattacharya faced sedition charges and imprisonment for allegedly raising anti-India slogans on the university campus. It later turned out that the videos used to implicate them were doctored.
|Kanhaiya Kumar, a Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) student union leader, gestures as he addresses a meet inside JNU campus in New Delhi on March 3, 2016 [Reuters/Adnan Abidi]|
In the light of what has come to pass and the battleground that the university has become in the last year, students and faculty have protested against the idea of having a tank on campus and the glorification of the armed forces. But the JNU administration seems to be in no mood to backtrack from its mission of forcing patriotism down their throats.
News reports indicate that an invitation has been extended to former Inspector General of Police SRP Kalluri to grace the Independence Day celebrations at JNU on August 15. It must be recalled that Kalluri has been accused of organising fake encounter killings and fake surrenders in the fight against Maoists and launching a witch-hunt against the journalists who exposed the sexual abuse of women and civilian killings during his reign of terror in Bastar.
Handing over an opportunity of addressing thousands of students to a man notorious not just for his human rights abuses but also for his deliberate propaganda war against the Adivasi resistance is a shameless attempt to brainwash young, impressionable minds and transform them into glossy, unquestioning flag-wavers.
We must also seize this moment to question: Where will this military incursion stop? Are we inching closer to a day where the armed forces will take over the task of teaching? In neighbouring Sri Lanka, university entrants are forced to undergo weeks-long residential training programmes in army/navy/police/air force bases conducted by the Defence Ministry under the guise of “leadership” and “positive thinking”.
|Activists from the student wing of BJP shout slogans during a protest march against ‘anti-national sloganeering’ at JNU in New Delhi on February 24, 2016 [Reuters/Adnan Abidi]|
Is there any guarantee that all this chest-thumping about the valour of India’s security forces will not result in a similar outsourcing of education into the hands of the Indian army? Will our universities, that have now been reduced to assembly-line factories producing skilled workers for global capitalism, also branch out into providing cannon fodder for our army?
It would befit the student groups in JNU, who displayed unprecedented courage and spunk during last year’s crackdown, to organise atrocity exhibitions to educate everyone on the terror and horror of India’s security forces. Just as the vice chancellor of JNU wanted constant reminders of the army’s “sacrifices and valour”, let us make it a point to remind everyone that the same army has been responsible for rape (in Jaffna, Tamil Eelam, 1987-1990; in Kunan and Poshpora, Kashmir, 1991; in Manipur, 2004), fake encounters (1528 instances of fake encounter killings in the last 20 years in Manipur alone), mass blinding (Kashmir, 2016) and killings of civilians in in conflict-ridden Kashmir and central India.
While educational authorities seem to be eager to convert classrooms into garrisons, perhaps such a counter-narrative would help take some of that “sacrifice and valour” gloss-and-glitter away and it will help us reflect on real issues: the political motives behind hard-selling patriotism, the militarisation of our every day, the poverty draft that forms the basis of recruitment and conscription to the armed forces, and the countless human rights abuses that have been committed by these men in uniform.