Earlier this week, actor Anupam Kher was pitted against director Saeed Akhtar Mirza on a primetime debate on the definition of a patriot. I will not expand on Kher’s definition because it is an extension of the mainstream ‘you’re either with us, or against us’ narrative that we hear all the time. Mirza had a different take: “A patriot is someone who wishes well for his country but questions its actions when it needs to be questioned”. (Kher went hysterical and ballistic hearing this).
Mirza’s explanation reminded me of an ugly episode that took place at the Central University of Haryana in Mahendragarh after the faculty and students put up a play based on the late Mahasweta Devi’s short story, Draupadi. The story, which is set in 1970s in tribal areas, revolves around army men asking the protagonist to reveal the names of those involved in a tribal movement. When she refuses to divulge them, the soldiers rape her.
The play was followed by a discussion on the Indian Army’s human rights record. It’s not clear how the details of the play or the discussion that followed reached people outside the campus, but soon the ABVP was outside the gates of the university, accusing the teachers and students of maligning the Indian Army.
The ABVP’S definition of a patriot/patriotism is similar to Kher’s: A patriot is someone who never questions any action taken by the State or its apparatus. The sub-text: Soldiers lay down their lives for our safety and so we must be blind to any human rights excesses by them. And if you do, then you are not a patriot/nationalist.
Instead of standing up for their students, staff, integrity and freedom of speech, the university authorities shamefully caved in without a protest, apologised in writing and issued notices to teachers who were involved in staging the play. Recent reports say that the teachers are now being sidelined, questioned and isolated. As for the students, the authorities have blocked their social media access, in the hope that they don’t get ideas about the value of questioning set norms and institutions. The heartening news is that the teachers who have been targeted have not caved in, and have said that the issue is not of them being silenced but the culture of silence that is being perpetrated in the university.
The ABVP’s stand is consonant with the Centre’s stand: In September, the Centre told Supreme Court that the NHRC, the highest statutory body constituted for the defence of the human rights, cannot investigate alleged excesses by armed forces in militancy-affected areas because the panel is a recommendatory body.
Now much as we love the armed forces, the truth is that — like all other armies in the world — it does indulge in excesses, and that is unacceptable to many. The Supreme Court has repeatedly warned the army of excesses in AFSPA areas, saying that their actions are unacceptable and must be investigated.
Going by the ABVP rules of nationalistic engagement, the judges are also anti-nationals. But we did not hear a squeak from the ABVP’s ‘patriot patrol’ against the judges; teachers, of course, are soft targets.
And why single out the Indian Army? Look at the record of paramilitary forces in Chhattisgarh; there are several instances of the ‘force’ — as they are called — of molesting, raping women after accusing them of being in cahoots with the Maoists.
The HRD ministry, the parent body, did not also come to the support of the Central University of Haryana. This is unfortunate (though not surprising), especially at a time when the ministry is liberalising norms to attract foreign faculty and thinking of granting more autonomy to institutions. I wonder what kind of academics would be enthusiastic to take up such offers with ABVP breathing down their necks.