I have been thinking about the statement defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman made this week lamenting the presence of “anti-national elements” within the student community of her alma mater, Jawaharlal Nehru University.
The more I think about it, the more I am convinced her statement is not just factually incorrect and irresponsible, as many have pointed out, but also criminal. It is a criminal act to instigate violence and there can be no doubt over what she is trying to do. By levelling a charge which can and will provoke violence against the students of JNU, she is also misusing her office. It is the post of raksha mantri which lends weight to what would otherwise have remained an unedifying example of propaganda by a party person that would have been dismissed by the people. But a defence minister making such a claim gives it a degree of credibility and will end up instigating violence. That is why I believe what she did was criminal.
Sitharaman is doing nothing new. She is only repeating what her colleague Rajnath Singh, who holds an equally important ministry, had done two years ago. After a controversy was manufactured by the media about an “anti national” meeting in JNU, he went so far as to warn the nation about how the students of JNU had the backing of terrorists from across the border. “The incident at JNU has received support from Hafiz Saeed. This is a truth that the nation needs to understand,” the home minister had said, linking the founder of terror group Lashkar-e-Taiba to the student demonstrations on campus.
Rajnath Singh should be held squarely responsible for the physical attacks on JNU students which took place after his statement. It was after all the home minister himself who was identifying the students as collaborators of the terrorists. Taking a cue from him, his police in Delhi unleashed an unprecedented smear campaign against a number of students.
Kanhaiya Kumar, the then president of the JNU students union, was assaulted brutally on court premises by lawyers. But this act of violence was treated as a trivial thing. Barely two years after the unprecedented attack, the Supreme Court decided the issue need not be discussed further. When Kamini Jaiswal and Prashant Bhushan pressed for a SIT probe into the violence, the court said, “We don’t think we will flog a dead horse to life.”
What BJP’s leaders are doing through their campaign is to conjure up “enemies” within the country with the aim of whipping up violence against them. Those who, for various reasons, don’t get the opportunity to safeguard the borders from external enemies are, through this campaign, given a list of enemies they can easily destroy. And quench their nationalist thirst.
It is a well thought out strategy. I realised how cynically it has been employed when a spokesperson of the BJP told me, “Ye anti national wala hamne chalaya, isne pakad liya, chal gaya ye.” (“The slogan of ‘anti national’ is our creation and it has taken hold.”).
This bloodlust was behind the attack on Umar Khalid just before Independence Day in Delhi. The pistol his would-be killer brought jammed, otherwise the attack could have turned fatal.
Umar, in the popular imagination of those swayed by the BJP’s propaganda, is an ‘anti-national’ whose very existence is a threat to the nation. The image of Kanhaiya that is pushed is similar. A friend of mine who teaches at Patna University was shocked when he found people in his own village in Nawada gunning for Kanhaiya. They regard him as an anti-national, he said.
A young man from Odisha told me that after February 2016, anyone from JNU is seen with suspicion. Even his parents were not sure what he was doing as a student of the university. Was he trapped in some anti-national conspiracy, they wondered.
For the past four years, we have seen JNU being used as a metaphor across the country. Whenever the ruling party tries to shut down dissenting voices, it says that it “will not allow another JNU”. We have heard this line in Jodhpur, Mahendragarh in Haryana, Pune and Delhi University. Most recently, while boasting about their attack on Sanjay Kumar, an assistant professor at the Central University of Bihar at Motihari, his attackers claimed they were performing a nationalist duty and would not allow this university to be turned into another JNU.
We should also not forget how the lung power of the Central HRD ministry and of BJP spokespersons was used to sully the image of Rohith Vemula and his mother. He was also accused of indulging in anti-national activities. It has been claimed that he was a fake Dalit and actually a Maoist who collaborated with anti-nationals.
The seriousness of the whole campaign needs to be understood. We need to see that here is a government, with all kinds of instruments of violence at its disposal, waging a war against students and teachers. The academic community has been turned into the “ accused”.
We need to turn the tables on them. We need to tell ministers like Sitharaman that it is they who stand accused—of indulging in inciting and instigating violence. We need to demand their resignation. Instigating violence against a section of the people while occupying a ministerial position must not be tolerated.