NEW DELHI: In light of the controversy surrounding Jawaharlal Nehru University, the arrest of JNU Student Union President Kanhaiya Kumar and the slapping of sedition charges against several students, the term “nationalism” is once again at the centre of mainstream discourse. TV anchors and government spokespersons have justified the police high handedness through the rouse of “nationalism” -- referring to the accused students, the JNU student community and the public supporting them as “anti-national”, as “traitors”, or more colloquially as “deshdrohi”.

As the facts emerge, it seems that the students were charged with sedition in an environment dominated by doctored videos, fake twitter handles and fabricated IB reports. As of now, there seems to be no conclusive proof against Kumar and the other students, with the people who raised the objectionable slogans remaining unidentified. Nevertheless, the tirade of “nationalism” has continued, as self-professed defenders of the nation have taken to lambasting students as traitors on television; beating up students, teachers and even journalists in a court of law; and just yesterday, opening fire at a JNU professor in Gwalior (Professor Vivek Kumar escaped unhurt).

While one assertion of “nationalism” has defined itself through the use of violence, abuse and slander, competing understandings of the term have also emerged. Jawaharlal Nehru University students and teachers have organised an alternative classroom as a measure of protest, where scholars, thinkers, journalists and others are invited to speak on the issue of nationalism. Academics, servicemen, politicians, students and citizens at large have written and spoken extensively on nationalism, advocating a broader definition of the term that is centred on rights, responsibilities, justice and peace.

Here’s a look at how nationalism is being understood in the context of JNU, and the government’s crackdown on educational institutions in the past.

Kanhaiya Kumar on nationalism:

JNUSU leader Kanhaiya Kumar was picked up on charges of sedition, with a video -- that has since turned out to be doctored -- being circulated by national TV channels as “conclusive proof” of his “anti-nationalism.” In a speech delivered just before his arrest, Kumar put forth a beautiful understanding of nationalism -- one centred on India’s constitution and rooted in justice for her poor and oppressed.

Kanhaiya’s full speech is available online, but was censored by the mainstream media in favour of the doctored video clip that we’re all now far too familiar with.

According to this speech, nationalism, for Kumar, is summarised as follows:

  1. For us nationalism is to fight for the rights of the 80 per cent poor of India;
  2. We have full faith in this country’s Constitution, if anyone raises a finger against India’s Constitution, be it of the Sanghis or anyone else, we will not tolerate that finger;
  3. But the constitution that is being taught at Jhandewala or Nagpur, we have no faith in that constitution;
  4. We have no faith in caste discrimination;
  5. We want to uphold the rights we have been given under the Constitution of India;
  6. We stand with India, with the dream that Bhagat Singh and Ambedkar wrote; we stand for the dream that all get their rights to live, to food, to expression; Rohith sacrificed his life for this dream;
  7. We have to ensure justice for all , and that will come from Parliament, from the Constitution, from democracy;
  8. JNUSU is against violence, against terrorism, against anti -national activity, the unidentified persons who have shouted Pakistan zindabad slogans, we condemn this completely.

Admiral Ramdas on Nationalism:

In an article published by The Citizen, Admiral Ramdas, former Chief of Naval Staff, writes: “In some ways it is a good thing that the death of Vemula, the arrest of Kanhaiya and the witch hunt against Umed Khalid, have actually led to a public debate about the definition of national and anti national, as also of the deeper and more intractable issues around caste, religion and discrimination in our society. The linked question regarding who, if anyone, has the right to decide on my nationalism or lack of it, is equally vexed and needs a longer, more mature discussion. To the best of my knowledge this has not been done since Independence. The existing laws and practice on this are largely inherited from the colonial period and were never addressed in a contemporary framework. This is critical for a mature democracy. Jingoism, waving the national flag, and shouting slogans , are not equivalent to a certification of patriotism.”

“Far more than saluting a flag [which of course I continue to do with honour and respect] – it is the thoughts articulated by young idealists like a Rohit Vemula, a Kanhaiya Kumar, a Shehla Rashid and yes a Umed Khaled all of whom together with the many unnamed and unsung women and men across this country, embody the true spirit of nationalism and patriotism. We must collectively ensure that we not only protect those who have not yet been pushed to take the extreme steps like Rohith Vemula, but ensure that justice is promised and done to those presently in custody or forced into hiding, for fear of their lives. In the ultimate analysis , human security is the best guarantee for National Security.”

Romila Thapar on Nationalism:

Professor Thapar wrote about nationalism, sedition and the projection of a Hindu Rashtra posturing as nationalism. “Since what is referred to as Hinduism does not confine itself to a single sacred book, nor is there exclusive worship of a single monotheistic God, the notion of blasphemy so crucial to the Christian and Islamic religions has little application to the Hindu religion. However, in the Hindutva version of Hinduism, aimed at establishing a Hindu Rashtra – a state where Hindus are the primary citizens and the purpose of governance is to uphold Hindu principles – the notion of a kind of blasphemy is applied to those that are critical of Hindutva that is equated with the Hindu Rashtra. This is then equated with the nation. Criticism of it is described as anti-nationalism so such criticism can be silenced. To call criticism as “hurt sentiment” is now much too mild. It has to be treated as blasphemy/anti-nationalism, and treated as a serious crime. This helps to convert a secular state into a religious state, which ultimately is the aim of the RSS.”

“There is by now little doubt that we are currently being governed by those that seem to have an anti-intellectual mind-set,” Prof. Thapar writes.

Ravish Kumar on Nationalism:

In a hard hitting address, journalist Ravish Kumar makes a case for different interpretations of nationalism. Kumar also slammed the reportage of the JNU controversy by sections of the media, displaying a blank screen in protest. The speech speaks for itself.

P. Sainath on Nationalism:

JNU students and teachers have organised daily lectures on nationalism, and it was at one such lecture on campus that P. Sainath spoke on the concept.

Vishwa Deepak (Zee News producer who quit) on Nationalism:

Vishwa Deepak, a producer with TV channel Zee News that was amongst the leading disseminators of the doctored video featuring the JNU students, quit and posted a hard hitting letter explaining his resignation on social media.

“What I am about to say is not a result of anger, irritation or emotion but is a well thought-out account. Along with being a journalist, I am also a citizen of the country in whose name the poison of blind “nationalism” is being spread and the country being pushed towards a state of civil war. My responsibilities as an Indian citizen as well as my professional duties is to stop this poison from spreading. I know this is liking trying to cross the ocean in a boat but I still want to make a start. I am therefore resigning from my post as a protest against the role we played in kindling and then promoting a campaign of blind nationalism which used the JNUSU President Kanhaiya Kumar as an excuse. I request that this letter be accepted without making the issue one of personal enmity.”

“Along with Kanhaiya, we made many students appear to be traitors and anti-nationals in the eyes of the people. If anyone is murdered tomorrow, who will take its responsibility? We have not merely created a situation for someone’s murder or to destroy some families but we have created the conditions ripe for spreading riots and brought the country to the brink of a civil-war. What sort of patriotism is this? After all, what sort of journalism is this?”

Academics and students on Nationalism:

There has been an outpour of support for the student and faculty at JNU, with scholars, thinkers, students and citizens from all over the world rallying in support. Different interpretations of nationalism have been put forth in the messages of solidarity, some of which are reproduced below:

“The state cannot dictate on the many meanings of what it is to be ‘Indian’ or mandate the meaning of ‘nationalism’. Rather, the state should be the one that makes sure that multiple ways of imagining one’s relationship with the nation are allowed to flourish, especially when it might contradict dominant ways of thinking,” -- 42 faculty members at IIT-Bombay.

“This incident reflects the current government’s authoritarian tendencies to stifle dissent in a thriving democracy. The government and some sections of the media have reduced the discourse to one of nationalism. That is not the debate,” -- Harvard University students.

“We protest the use of institutional and state machinery to stifle dissent on campuses, and the attempt to persecute those whose views do not conform to the narrow narratives of ‘nationalism’, ‘nationhood’ and ‘Indian culture’ promoted and endorsed by the ruling party,” -- Oxford University students and alumni.

“The attacks on JNU are only the latest of the several assaults by the BJP government and its allies on democracy, constitutionally guaranteed rights, and academic freedoms… We believe that it is the duty of citizens to be critical of their governments. Sedition laws or charges of anti-nationalism have no place in democratic societies. We believe it is the right of people to dissent and to voice their opinions, however much these opinions may run counter to the views of the majority. We believe that debates and protests are the life-blood of a democracy,” -- academics at Columbia University.

G. Arunima on Nationalism:

Prof. G. Arunima also spoke on national and nationalism. “I am an Indian. My parents are Indian. But I don’t have to wake up every morning and start swearing my allegiance to the country.”

Rajdeep Sardesai on Nationalism

Journalist Rajdeep Sardesai, in an article titled “Yes, I Am Anti-National” asked “will definitions of nationalism be shaped by the convenience of power politics?” “Above all else, I am anti-national because I believe in Ambedkar’s concept of a republican constitution that places the citizen and rule of law at its core. No one has the right to impose their vision of ‘cultural nationalism’ on a diverse society in the guise of ‘one nation, one religion, one culture’.”

Irfan Habib on Nationalism

Historian Irfan Habib in a lecture titled “India In Peril” said it was time for the nationalists to defend the principles of India as based on her constitution. It is ironical that the RSS which had refused to honour the national flag and Constitution right up till 1948 is today claiming the sole right to define nationalism and anti-nationalism, Habib said, adding that no single group of people or government has the right to define nationalism; nationalism, according to Prof. Habib is not the preserve of any particular ideology but rests within the broader interests of the welfare of society.

Amartya Sen on Nationalism

On the same day that Kanhaiya Kumar was arrested, nobel laureate Amartya Sen spoke -- on invitation of the Editors Guild of India -- about tolerance and dissent.

“The silencing of dissent, and the generating of fear in the minds of people violate the demands of personal liberty, but also make it very much harder to have a dialogue-based democratic society.

The problem is not that Indians have turned intolerant. In fact, quite the contrary. We have been too tolerant even of intolerance. When some people — often members of a minority (in religion or community or scholarship) — are attacked by organised detractors, they need our support.

This is not happening adequately right now. And it did not happen adequately earlier as well.”

“As Indians, we have reason to be proud of our tradition of tolerance and plurality, but we have to work hard to preserve it. The courts have to do their duty (as they are doing — but more is needed), and we have to do ours (indeed much more is surely needed). Vigilance has been long recognised to be the price of freedom..”