Hindutva nationalism, democracy and fear of university speech
Indian students shout slogans during a protest against the rapes of two minor girls on October 18, 2015. (Representative image) Photograph: (AFP)
Historically, the universities in India have reproduced hegemonic social values and perpetuated social hierarchies. Yet, on its margins, university and college campuses provide spaces where the young minds can get exposed to a multiplicity of perspectives − including oppositional and counter-hegemonic perspectives − on various social, cultural and political issues. This makes universities a contradictory space.
Much more than classroom learning, the broadening of the horizons of critical thinking happens outside the classroom through activities like seminars, theatre, film and documentary screening, and participation in political activities. Most of the times, the political content of these activities is not to the liking of the votaries of the Hindutva. Alongside, in recent times, the university campuses have also seen the political assertion of historical oppressed identities that provide a powerful challenge to the established social hierarchies. This happened partly due to the changing demographic composition of the university students in the last couple of decades due to the constitutionally mandated socially inclusive policies.
For example, in many university campuses a movement like Pinjra Tod has been gaining popularity in last couple of years. Pinjra Tod began as a movement against oppressive hostel rules curtailing women students’ freedom of movement, but now has become a movement taking up many issues concerning women students. There are also events and activities around the issues of gay and queer rights and expressions. Both these movements have become sources of paranoia and anxiety for the culture of masculinity that Hindu nationalism has always promoted.
Then there is the emphatic assertion of dalit-bahujan politics on college and university campus that challenges and inverts Hinduism’s religious myths, as we saw in the controversy around the celebration of Mahishasur on the JNU campus. In addition, There are also left ideological groups active in various campuses, which, in their own ways, continuously challenge the narratives of culture, politics and economy promoted by Hindutva politics and present strong counter-narratives of their own. They often organise programmes related to human rights record of the Indian state; in the process raising isuues related to Kashmir, Bastar, AFSPA (Armed Forces Special Powers Act), the displacements of people by various development projects.
The right wing groups try to control the debate in the public sphere by presenting it as nationalism versus freedom of speech, as if there is a necessary contradiction between the two
All these activities cause serious paranoia and fear among Hindutva groups. Unwilling or unable to respond to all these political challenges, the ABVP has often resorted to violent means in recent past. One strategy that is frequently used by the ABVP for justifying its violence or threats of violence against groups and activities it doesn’t approve of is of naming them ‘anti-national’ or ‘anti-Hindu.’ The artificial binary of nationalism-‘anti-national’ works well for them as a strategy as it puts the opponents on the defensive. In this way, in most such cases, the right wing groups try to control the debate in the public sphere by presenting it as nationalism versus freedom of speech, as if there is a necessary contradiction between the two, wherein the latter faces its ultimate limit at the frontier of nationalism. In this construction of a binary between the two, it is largely forgotten that nation is a continuously changing entity and the limits and scope of the freedom of citizens can never be fixed at any given point in time. Thus it is either outright stupid or a willful pretense of ignorance to say that words like azadi/freedom used in students’ slogans can only mean advocacy of secessionism.
Nations and nationalism cannot forever limit the possibilities inherent in human freedom and human becoming. The actually existing relation between nationalism and the rights of citizens at any given point defines what kind of nationalism should be acceptable. It is only in the extremely oppressive and claustrophobic version of Hindutva nationalism that citizens’ freedoms are sought be continuously limited and constricted. But it would be wrong to frame the debate over rights and freedoms guaranteed in the Constitution in the narrow liberal framework of a defence of abstract formal rights of individuals or groups. The freedom of speech should be taken as the very precondition on which depend the possibility of politics as an instrument of social and cultural transformation as well as an enabling condition for the contest over the definition, form and content of nationhood. Thus, another important part of the same strategy of the right-wing groups is to continuously keep invoking the spectre of external and internal enemies threatening the nation, thereby reducing politics to the question of unity of the nation against enemies.
For right-wing groups, the obsessive invocation of the unity against external enemy is nothing but a strategy of perpetuating existing social hierarchies and dominance
In this way, right-wing politics, in India and everywhere else, tends to divert attention away from the issues of social divisions, dominance, hegemony and oppressions within the nation. The democratic politics, on the other hand, brings these into view and makes possible the articulation of counter-hegemonic struggles. Thus, for right-wing groups, the obsessive invocation of the unity against external enemy is nothing but a strategy of perpetuating existing social hierarchies and dominance. The democratic political contest continuously keeps the internal social composition of the nation open to question and transformation through counter-hegemonic struggles.
The debate or clash, then, is really between various possibilities of collective national existence. Why can’t, for instance, we ask for a more federal India wherein the states have much more power than in the existing constitutional arrangement? Is that also anti-national? Because of its extremely oppressive and dark record of nationalism in the last century, particularly in the inter-War years, but also in the 1990s, nation as a desirable form of political community is being questioned in the contemporary political-theoretical discourse all around the world. The argument that its best defenders put forward in its defense is that it is the only viable form of political community that can secure and guarantee a framework of universal rights. However, nationalisms that continuously threaten to limit the scope of rights and freedoms are recipes for totalitarianism.
The question of freedom of speech and expression in India should be considered in its multiple aspects. One is its formal-legal aspect as a fundamental right guaranteed under the Constitution. The other aspect is political. To what extent this right can be exercised in different situations depends on the balance of political forces on the ground. Historically, in the continuously evolving political culture of democracy in India, the value of individual rights and freedoms is yet to take deep enough roots for it to have a prominent place in this culture. In any case not all freedoms are protected equally. For instance the freedom to criticise and raise voice against caste and gender based oppressions does not find protection on the ground in most situations.
The most disturbing part of the political culture of democracy in India is that, not only the executive organs of the state like police and administration, but also the political parties – an essential component of any modern democracy – have not shown the willingness to take a stand for the defence of individual rights. And there is no exception to this, including the record of the left parties in West Bengal and Kerala.
Yet, there are reasons why it can be argued that, with respect of protection of rights of individual freedom and of autonomy of academic institutions, the BJP, as a political party, now the party in power, is different from other political parties in India because of its connection to the RSS. The RSS as a cultural organisation desires total interpretive control over culture and education. The RSS seeks to establish, as part of its agenda of Hindu rashtra, an exclusive interpretative control over the meaning of nationalism, a definition of the nation’s culture, and also over the nation’s past and history. This is what makes the RSS-BJP-ABVP as a combined political force far more interventionist in the academic and political spaces of universities and colleges than most other political parties, if not all.