The government’s move to make centrally-funded universities compulsorily fly the national flag is another example of the wrong-headed way it has handled the crisis arising out of a student protest at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). Human resource development minister Smriti Irani is understood to have made the proposal in a speech to university vice-chancellors, and a resolution to the same effect was unanimously approved.
Significantly, the first flag will be raised at JNU, currently in the headlines for all the wrong reasons. The dimensions of the flag and whether or not it has to fly on a 207-foot-high mast are beside the point, as is the fact that many of the universities already fly the flag.
What is disturbing is that a sense of patriotism is sought to be ‘instilled’ — read pushed down the throats — of our university students. Surely, it should be obvious to the Bharatiya Janata Party that nationalism — over which, incidentally, it has no monopoly — can never be force-fed. It comes from within, and there is little to suggest that this generation of students is any less proud of India than those who have gone before it.
In fact, the speech of JNU student union president Kanhaiya Kumar, currently the government’s public enemy number one, speaks movingly of his love for the country. Ironically, the whole move reeks of a nationalist government using a venerated national symbol to score points against a student population over which it is fast losing its hold. As a student, if you protest against the move, you are ‘anti-national’, thereby playing neatly into the hands of the BJP. If you accept it, you bow before what sounds like a coercive measure. It need never have come to this: A more nuanced handling of the protests, when they first arose, could have defused the situation. Instead, the heavy artillery came out, sound and fury ensued and the whole situation degenerated into a them-versus-us fracas. Only, in this case, the ‘them’ of today is the ‘us’ of tomorrow.
One needs only to visit a cricket stadium during an India match to sample a spontaneous outpouring of patriotism. Faces are painted with the Indian tricolour and flags fly everywhere. Goosebumps often accompany a rendition of the national anthem. It is, by and large, a happy and good-natured sort of nationalism; it is no less intense for that, and far more meaningful than one achieved by diktat.