NEW DELHI: “I am a patriot to the extent that I still believe that India can be a role model when it comes to creating a harmonious heterogeneous democratic society. However, I am critical of the state of affairs to the extent that I will blame the state and institutional apparatus and not just persons and governments,” said Partha Gupta*, a student in Delhi University, when asked about his views on being a ‘patriot’.

In India today, the use and meaning of this word has been clouded by resurgence of an extreme nationalism, the need for which has confounded the youth of this country. After a series of interviews conducted to understand what the chaos surrounding words such as ‘anti-national’ and ‘traitor’ meant to the young Indian citizen, we see that the normalization of the violence that the word justifies is condemned by them.

Nearly all of them believed strongly that the upholding of the Constitution is of utmost importance to a patriot, and that a violation of it would deem a person to be unpatriotic and thus an ‘anti-national’. Chandrajyoti Singh, a second year student at St.Stephen’s College, believed that a true patriot was one who was “honest in their service to the nation.” While the sentiments of this statement are transparent and untainted by malice, it is important to note that due to the implied meanings attached to the phrase its distortion to suit the needs of extremists can easily be achieved.

It is exactly this distortion that is in play when talking about the now commonplace use of the terms ‘terrorist’ and ‘traitor of the nation’. Nummeir Ahmed, a student of St. Xavier’s College, Kolkata, goes on to exemplify the meaning of these words in his comment to The Citizen saying that while “a terrorist is one who, through violent methods tries to impose their ideology onto others…a traitor is essentially one who goes against the established laws of their nation in favour of another.” While these definitions are what one has grown up learning, it is severely removed from what is in use today.

When talking to Sneha*, a member of the ABVP, about her views on the word ‘anti-national’ she said, “Anyone who breaks Hindu traditions that make the foundation of this country is anti-national,”. Sneha* was part of the incident outside Ramjas College when students from various colleges protested the disruption of a seminar held within the college by the ABVP. She firmly believed that inviting a person who was “a certified anti-national” to speak at the seminar was proof enough to club all the students protesting their (the ABVP) interruption as ‘anti-nationals’. When asked to justify her claim she said, “Those who go against what is in the greater interest of the nation will have to face our anger…we will protect our country from those who try and destroy it.”

On analysing her comment, there are a few points that demand attention. The first is the idea of having an opinion contrary to that held by the majority as being a symptom of ‘anti-nationalism’ and therefore an act of sedition. The second involves the decision-making process that goes into determining what exactly is or isn’t in the greater interest of the nation.

Who makes this decision and why? Visakha*, a senior teacher of Political Science at Delhi University, commented on this saying, “the ones who occupy a pedestal of privilege by being part of the majority decide what is good and harmful for our county…(this) is becoming increasingly dangerous for those who hold an opinion that differs (with the majority). Our democracy is being seriously threatened and nobody is batting an eyelid,”

Although its citizens take pride in being a part of what is considered the largest democracy in the world, the direct and immediate threat to it seems to startle very few. While a counter to every argument allows for its complete analysis, the absolute suppression of one that is contrary to the belief held by the majority is certainly not the hallmark of a democracy that is considered as great as ours. “The voice of the common man should be the most essential and necessary part of a democracy. However, this has not been the case,” notes Vasundhara*, a student of Delhi University.

Another significant point to take note of would be the growth in need to “protect the nation”. Why has this growth to protect the country from forces that are considered ‘harmful’ to the nation occurred? Who are these ‘forces’ exactly and who identifies them? These are questions that plague the young citizen and the potential answers to these questions instil more fear than hope in their hearts.

Another question that follows from the ones previously asked is what exactly comprises a nation? Is it the physical boundaries that define it or the people? Regarding this, Rohit Singh, a student at St. Stephen’s College, said, “I think nations do not have boundaries, states do. A nation is a collective identity that traces a common history and aspires for a common fate. Most nations are states today- therefore the word ‘nation state’. However, we cannot ignore that there can exist more nations within a large state.

There is, thus, no harm in considering the legitimate demands of people ignoring national boundaries.” The idea of the ‘nation needing protection’ becomes complicated when we go into what people believe a nation to be. If one believes, like Partha Gupta* that “a nation cannot sustain without people believing in it and any place where we pedestalize our territorial sovereignty at the cost of dealing with the needs and interests of the residents (citizens) ends up being a sticky situation,” then is the war cry of those shielding their violence behind the guise of “protecting the nation” legitimate at all?

After talking to those who believed passionately that the students who opposed the pelting of rocks and locking up of the students in the seminar room at Ramjas College for the discussion of a topic that they believed was against the “greater interest of the nation”, the predominant idea that could be gathered was that “actions such as this compromise the integrity of the nation and stain its honour,”.

While words such as ‘integrity’ and ‘honour’ are essentially vague, it does not in the least deter these ‘patriots’ from “fulfilling their duty towards the nation”. This duty is executed by protecting the symbols associated with the honour of the nation and any attempt to dishonour these symbols shall be met with strong resistance, said Gaurav*, a student of Ramjas College. When asked about who decides what these symbols essentially are, his answer, unsurprisingly, was that the majority did.

The indifference with which the opinion of the minority is met is unnerving. “The threat to our democracy has never been as imminent as it is today, but the concern displayed is disheartening to say the least,” added Visakha*.

The everyday usage of the term ‘anti-national’ to shut down views contrary to those held by the majority has left no room for the exercise of the freedom of speech and expression, which is upheld by the very Constitution that the “protectors of the nation” so passionately strive to guard. “The voice of the common man can only be heard via the media. In today’s age dominated by growing technology, it is here that the scope for the expression of opinion has expanded,” said Dimash Thaosen, a student of Delhi University. He continued saying, “When we see a suppression of the power of the media to freely relay the concerns of the common man, then the very essence of the nation i.e., its democratic nature, is lost.”

The increased use of the term has played a very significant role in normalizing the violence associated with it. If a citizen sees that the reasons an individual is being subjected to violence is because he is a ‘traitor’ and an ‘anti-national’, s/he shall not question the violence, even if it is that very individual that comprises the essence of a nation.

It is thus important to bring back and fight to protect the tradition of questioning the majority. The overcoming of the fear that has caused the attitude of ‘by standing’ to engulf society today is the need of the hour. Giving up our freedom to express our opinion, irrespective of what it may be, is not an option that we can as a democracy can afford.