NEW DELHI: The BJP government arrested Jawaharlal Nehru University Students Union leader Kanhaiya Kumar along with other students on grounds of sedition and criminal conspiracy. Following an event at the university to mark the hanging of Afzal Guru, the government objected to the raising of “anti-India” slogans, which had already been condemned by Kumar and other JNU students. Kumar had delivered an impassioned speech right before his arrest; a speech that was an assertion of the Indian constitution and a definition of patriotism and nationalism as arising from democracy, rights and equality.

Yet, the government swooped in, with Home Minister Rajnath Singh warning of “stringent action” against the organisers of the protest. “Anyone who raises anti-India slogans or tries to put a question mark on nation’s unity and integrity will not be spared,” he said. HRD Minister Smriti Irani said: “The nation can never tolerate any insult to mother India.”

With its crackdown on JNU and the arrest of the university’s students, the BJP government has issued a clear message, which can be paraphrased as follows:

1. The BJP/RSS/VHP/Hindu Mahasabha are the custodians of Indian nationalism; any view that differs from theirs is ‘anti-national’

2. ‘Anti-national’ will be used as a ruse to silence and other dissent

3. Any criticism of the BJP-led government will be targeted and punished

In this regard, the BJP’s version of ‘nationalism’ deserves a closer look. Taking the recent case of independent New Delhi candidate Swami Omji, who told reporters that “I am from Hindu Mahasabha but BJP is my party. I am also global president of Om Saiji Party. Since Asaram and Narayan Sai are in jail, therefore the responsibility is with me now.” Speaking about Aam Aadmi Party leader and Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, Omji said, “I am against Kejriwal, he is anti-national. On 21, January 2014 - I entered Kejriwal's house and thrashed him.” Threatening further action against “anti-nationals”, Omji said, ““We killed Mahatma Gandhi. In the future, we will try to convince anti-nationals like Kejriwal. If he doesn't listen, we will shoot him and kill him.”

Let’s repeat that. “We killed Mahatma Gandhi. In the future, we will will convince or kill anti-nationals like Kejriwal.”

This brand of nationalism considers Mahatma Gandhi, the father of our nation who fought the colonial masters to the bitter end, “anti-national.”

It is the same brand of nationalism that has worked to install the statues of Nathuram Godse -- the killer of Mahatma Gandhi -- in temples across the country, in a bid to worship him as a God. The Hindu Mahasabha also wants to build a temple for Godse in Sitapur district.

It is this version of ‘nationalism’ that has led to what has been dubbed as the ‘tolerance debate’ in India, where dissent is targeted and punished. Take the examples of actors Aamir Khan and Shahrukh Khan, whose seemingly innocuous comments about the rising intolerance in India was slammed by those at the highest level of politics. In response to SRK, BJP general secretary and a former Minister Kailash Vijayvargiya had tweeted: "Shah Rukh Khan lives in India, but his heart is in Pakistan. His films make crores here but he finds India intolerant."

In fact, “go to Pakistan” has increased in decibels since the BJP government came to power at the centre with this becoming a refrain of sorts. The difference is that from being focused on the minorities this has been extended to include all dissenters including the writers, filmmakers, scientists and others who have come out in strong protest against the government and the Hindutva affiliates for fanning divisiveness and hate in the country.

Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s Sadhvi Prachi for instance followed the BJP general secretary to attack Khan as a “Pakistani agent”. And went on to say, "Shah Rukh Khan is an agent of neighbouring country Pakistan as he reflects their (Pakistan's) ideology. Such a man should go to Pakistan."

The extreme right wing groups in India have always linked Pakistan to terrorism and both to the Indian minorities. During the 2014 Lok Sabha campaign the minorities were told over and over again to go to Pakistan if they did not want to vote for Narendra Modi. BJP’s Giriraj Singh for instance went a step further to threaten, "those who did not vote for Narendra Modi should be sent to Pakistan". The Election Commission at the time intervened to stop him from campaigning in Jharkhand but after the elections, he was included in the Council of Ministers at the centre by a grateful Prime Minister.

The message from the BJP/RSS/VHP/Hindu Mahasabha has been clear from the start: Agree with us, or you’re “anti-national” and should “go to Pakistan.”

In addition to this message, the BJP government at the centre portrays a deep insecurity by choosing to respond to any and all forms of dissent. What business is it of the centre what Shahrukh Khan or Aamir Khan say, or what students gathering peacefully shout? Shouldn’t democracy accord space to dissent?

Further, shouldn’t nationalism be dialogue based and driven? Shouldn’t democracy allow for competing forms of the term?

The BJP/RSS/VHP/Mahasabha may understand nationalism where Mahatma Gandhi is ‘anti-national.’ For many of us, it’s the opposite.

After all, isn’t at least one version of nationalism determined by caring for your country as a whole? Which includes its silenced minorities: dalits, muslims, women, kashmiris, the list goes on....

Doesn’t that version of nationalism deserve some space in the political discourse?