NEW DELHI: “Nationalism can have a liberating effect, but nationalism in its narrow form can be extremely oppressive,” said Sugato Bose of the Trinamool Congress in the Lok Sabha as he pointed to the treasury benches and described their version of nationalism as “narrow, arrogant and selfish”.

The government was in the dock, insofar as the substance of the debate on JNU and HCU was concerned, in both Houses of Parliament under the onslaught of an united opposition.In the one House Human Resource Development Minister Smriti Irani indulged in a theatrical performance, high on drama, low on substance that heard applause from the treasury benches but tongue-in-cheek comments from the opposite side. In the Upper House, she was “calmer” or so she herself said, but the House was adjourned on Thursday evening when the Opposition objected to her reading from a pamphlet that she claimed was from Jawaharlal Nehru University, on Durga.(Sections of the media have reported since her first reference to the same in the Lok Sabha, that the pamphlet reflected the beliefs of a tribal community in eastern India with Quartz going so far as to ask the Minister whether it was now her case that tribals were depraved and anti-national).

However, the House was adjourned as an angry opposition led by Congress MP Anand Sharma asked how the Minister was being allowed to read these views. Sharma said that derogatory comments had been made by people against Prophet Mohammad and Virgin Mary and “there will a be war here” if members and Ministers were allowed to bring these kind of references into the House. What is happening here, Sharma almost shouted. The BJP MPs stood up in support of Irani and the House was adjourned.

The government, in what was clearly a thought out strategy moved into what was supposed to be an aggressive and yet reasonable mode. The responses from the MPs and the Ministers followed a : we are for the students trajectory, we are all for debate and discussion, we are against politicisation of the issue, the law can follow its own course insofar as the arrested students were concerned, we can assure the House that no one will be harmed, and yet we will not tolerate slogans such as those raised in JNU and HCU, no one can, and threats to cut India into pieces will be countered. The basic argument by all the Ministers who were fielded to respond to the debate including Home Minister Rajnath Singh, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, Irani herself, and of course others like Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi and Venkiah Naidu basically followed this theme, with nationalism reduced to countering slogans and meetings in University campuses with the assertion now---by Singh and Jaitley that all of JNU was not anti-national.

“Surely nationalism is not so brittle that it will crumble in the echo of a few slogans” asked Bose.He, like the entire Opposition in both Houses made it clear, that while he fully condemned the anti national slogans and supported action against those actually guilty of this, the dubbing of an entire university as anti-national, the efforts to criminalise dissent, the terrorisation of students in both campuses, the witchhunt with students slapped with sedition cases was not acceptable.

The Opposition leaders built a case together against the government, over the two days of discussion in both Houses. They pointed out that the attack on students followed a pattern---from IIT-M on the Periyar Study Circle, to FTII in Pune, to HCU, JNU--- and was part of a larger plan to stifle dissent, and move towards changing the goalposts of democratic India to a Hindu Rashtra. All MPs pointed to the dangers of this effort, that they cautioned the government would have dangerous consequences on the wellbeing of India. The points raised formed a comprehensive story that went like this:

The ABVP was being used by the Sangh to attack students who did not agree with the Sangh’s version of a monolithic India in University campuses. The HRD Ministry was playing a direct interventionist role, as was seen in IIT- Madras where the students Periyar Study circle was banned at its instance. And where HCU was forced to take action against Vemula after five letters were sent to the authorities by the HRD Ministry---signed from an under secretary to a joint secretary, sent to the Registrar and the last two to the Vice Chancellor---on the basis of a complaint by BJP leaders to Irani. That here too the University had been branded as anti national, extremist by the BJP MP in his letter, and that the HRD had taken this up under the same branding. And that subsequent action against the Dalit students had driven Vemula to take his own life, with several opposition leaders describing his death as “institutional murder.”

The government had little defence, except for raising petty points such as some comments that Vemula had made against the communists and leader Sitaram Yechury on the issue of reservations. Or that the Opposition was trying to politicise the death of a “child” with Irani claiming that Vemula could have been revived if he had been taken to hospital immediately. The doctors who attended to him, incidentally, have since said they arrived within minutes but that he had been dead for a while. And that there was no delay at all. There was no explanation about the build up to the suicide, and what the opposition MPs described as the proactive role of the HRD MInistry. Irani at one stage said, strangely, that an environment was being built as if she had signed all the letters herself and was glad that the opposition leaders had themselves pointed out that the letters were signed by the officials. Some MPs could be heard pointing out that the officials were only following instructions.

Nationalist Congress Party leader D.P.Tripathi, a former JNUSU President himself, warned the government against pillorying the institution, and branding its faculty, its students and its contribution to the country and indeed academia across the world. The Opposition leaders pointed towards the atmosphere of fear and terror that the government had tried to create, first with the police storming the campus, arresting the young student on the basis of fake Twitter handles and morphed videos, slapping sedition charges, and seeking to intimidate all by moving to stifle dissent. Specific questions were asked as to why action was not taken against the police who stood by and watched the lawyers beat up journalists, students and others at the Patiala courts, why not a single lawyer despite threats from them to kill Kanhaiya, to throw petrol bombs, had been arrested for days, and why death threats from a BJP leader had been ignored.

There was agreement amongst the opposition that the BJP version of narrow and oppressive nationalism was not acceptable; that it would divide and polarise the nation and in the process weaken it dramatically; that the world was already questioning the efforts to stifle dissent by attacking students; that investments would stop; and that this certainly did not constitute the idea of India envisaged by Ambedkar, Gandhi, Nehru. Tilak, Tagore and all the others associated with the freedom of the country.

However, the flavour of the strong arguments made by several MPs did not impact on a media given to sound bytes. The flavour of the debate was made secondary to histrionics---such as the couple of minutes between Irani and BSP leader Mayawati---with theatre grabbing the headlines over and above serious debate. Interestingly, the print media that was sober and serious in its coverate has now pointed out---the Indian Express to be precise---that references to the RSS, Godse etc by Jyotiraditya Scindia have been expunged from the Lok Sabha records while the names of eight accused students read out by Irani remain even though they have not been held guilty by any court of law.

The government did not seem to be interested in the larger and more pertinent and valuable arguments the Opposition MPs were making, and instead came in from all sides. Irani with her emotions and strong in the face nationalism, Singh as the face of reason assuring the House that not a single student will be harmed, Jaitley as the intellectual drawing from history, assuring the Communist parties that they were now mainstream and the problem was with the Maoists, with the violence and the intimidation on the campus, at the Patiala courts and outside being referred to in passing as just a matter of detail.

Bose ended his speech with a poem by Rabindranath Tagore written on the last day of 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.

The hungry self of the Nation shall burst in a violence of fury from its own shameless feeding.

For it has made the world its food,

And licking it, crunching it, and swallowing it in big morsels,

It swells and swells

Till in the midst of its unholy feast descends the sudden heaven piercing its heart of grossness.

The crimson glow of light on the horizon is not the light of thy dawn of peace, my Motherland.

It is the glimmer of the funeral pyre burning to ashes the vast flesh, - the self-love of the Nation, - dead under its own excess.

Thy morning waits behind the patient dark of the East, Meek and silent.

Keep watch, India.

Bring your offerings of worship for that sacred sunrise.

Let the first hymn of its welcome sound in your voice, and sing,

'Come, Peace, thou daughter of God's own great suffering.

Come with thy treasure of contentment, the sword of fortitude,

And meekness crowning thy forehead.'

Be not ashamed, my brothers, to stand before the proud and the powerful

With your white robe of simpleness.

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.