Intervening in the ‘nationalism’ debate in a much more measured way than his more dramatic Cabinet colleagues, finance minister Arun Jaitley explained that the reason the BJP allied with an ideologically incompatible partner like the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) was to strengthen the mainstream Kashmir politicians against the pro-Azaadi separatists. He argued that whether it was the BJP or the Congress, any government at the Centre had only two choices in the Valley — the Muftis or the Abdullahs — if they wanted to weaken secessionists.
When their coalition was formed, I was the first to say that the soft separatism of the PDP and the hard nationalism of the BJP was probably the best hope for peace in Jammu and Kashmir. I have thus never called the BJP treacherous for choosing to accept (in the Agenda of Alliance) the status quo on Article 370; on the contrary, I am on record hailing the coming together of the two parties as an example of political statesmanship.
But the reason the PDP alliance has become a lightning rod in the increasingly polarised patriotism argument is because it exposes a glaring contradiction in the government response to the Jawaharlal Nehru University students it’s charged with sedition. Take a closer look at the agreement between the BJP and the PDP, co-written by Ram Madhav who was the public face of the RSS before formally joining the BJP and Haseeb Drabu, the former finance minister in the state. The document refers to the previous NDA government’s dialogue process with “all political groups including the Hurriyat Conference,” and promises to replicate AB Vajpayee’s principles of “Insaniyat, Kashmiriyat and Jamhooriyat”. It goes on to say that it will initiate a “sustained and meaningful dialogue” with all stakeholders and political groups “irrespective of their ideological views and predilections.”
In other words — on the one hand the Modi government will engage (rightly so) those whose politics has for decades demanded ‘Azaadi’ from India (Hurriyat literally means liberty/freedom); on the other hand, it will jail students who organised a university event where similar slogans were raised — and going by the evidence so far — certainly not by Kanhaiya Kumar, the first young man to be imprisoned.
How does the government explain that its former deputy Prime Minister LK Advani invited the Hurriyat for talks, an outreach the BJP-PDP government promises to repeat- but thinks JNU students are seditious and dangerous and deserving of jail? Senior ministers officially confirm that the worst slogans that called for India’s ruin may have been raised not by JNU students — but by outsiders who attended the event, wearing ‘niqabs’ or masks. At JNU, supporters of Kanhaiya have long maintained that the abhorrent call for “Bharat Ki Barbadi” was not by any of them, but by strangers whom none of them recognised or knew. Anant, among the young JNU scholars who’s been accused of sedition but not yet arrested laughingly told me, “In JNU, we compete fiercely with slogan vs. slogan; we would never hide our faces, we would show them off.”
Now if the men who sloganeered against India turn out to be Kashmiris — anyone who has reported from the Valley, as I have, will tell you how commonplace such words are during street protests there — does it not present a piquant dilemma for the government? After all it has promised to politically engage the separatists, not imprison them, as long as there is no violence that accompanies their utterances. And in any case you cannot jail every Kashmiri youth in the valley who expresses angry alienation, can you? Is it because relations with the PDP are precariously placed right now (this week there have been a fresh round of under-the-radar talks in Delhi between PDP interlocutors and top BJP leaders) that the government would like to underplay the Kashmir contradiction in the JNU debate?
Is that the reason the public focus has been kept on the ultra-Left students instead of the tricky contradictions that the Kashmir factor throws up? Just a few days ago, Mehbooba Mufti, who would be the next chief minister of the J&K coalition, had broken her silence on JNU with the following warning. “I request the government that nothing should happen that would have a negative impact on Jammu and Kashmir where the situation is already bad.” Could the secret talks underway and the BJP’s need to keep those channels open explain how JNU has been handled?
Yes it is true that the event to commemorate Afzal Guru was organised by JNU students and the pamphlets distributed about it disturbingly described his conviction as a judicial killing. But then Mehbooba’s father Mufti Saheb is on record saying Guru was hanged in “unholy haste.” He called the execution “a negative reference point in Kashmir’s painful history.” And nobody would call Mufti Saheb, India’s first Muslim Union home minister anti-national would they? Other BJP allies like the Parkash Singh Badal government in Punjab have petitioned for the pardon of two convicted terrorists — Balwant Rajoana & Devinderpal Bhullar without having their patriotism questioned. J Jayalalithaa, known to enjoy a close rapport with Prime Minister Narendra Modi went as far as ordering the release or Rajiv Gandhi’s killers. Are Badal and Jayalalithaa anti-national for the BJP?
I am glad Jaitley referred to the romance of radicalism of young men and women. He rose from student politics himself and his friends tell tales of his own rebellious, questioning streak back then. Would he not pause to think about how unjust it is that a group of young, inquiring, non-conformist minds — have been labelled terrorists and called “as dangerous as Masood Azhar” — for slogans that may not have even been theirs? The video used against Kanhaiya has turned out to be doctored; channels that aired it should be deeply embarrassed. I don’t agree with a single utterance at the event but that does not mean that the State should show coercion, instead of compassion. If dialogue is possible with hardened Kashmiri separatists and Naga insurgents, how can a handful of students be considered a national security threat? The BJP’s own contradictions continue to mount.
Barkha Dutt is consulting editor, NDTV, and founding member, Ideas Collective
The views expressed are personal