The increasingly narrow-minded space where proclamations on what constitutes patriotism are occurring reminds me of similar discussions that defined a large part of my youth in the United States. In India today, through the din of self-declared patriotism lays a slippery slope towards dangerous and ultimately self-injurious policies.
Over a decade ago, as the US responded to the September 11 attacks, I found myself organising fellow students as part of a critical mass that took to the streets to voice opposition to the domestic and foreign policies of the War on Terror. At the time, we were operating in a growing climate of intolerance for critical discourse.
Following 9/11, a wave of patriotism swept the United States, fashioning grief and confusion into the mallets intended to beat the drums of war. Dissent was widespread; however, under the banner of nationalism, significant attempts were made to silence any criticism towards plans for two subsequent disastrous military interventions.
Those who spoke out found themselves, while not alone, increasingly pushed to the sides and deemed anti-national for questioning the wars and occupations in Afghanistan and Iraq, the establishment of an expansive surveillance state, and the crackdown on civil liberties at home.
Over a decade later, those same accusations of anti-nationalism and sedition ring familiar as they are being hurled at students and echo off the walls of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) and campuses across the country.
Kanhaiya Kumar’s arrest brings to light a disturbing trend in India to attempt to define ‘the nation’ along strict majoritarian lines and brand those who question the agenda of the State ‘anti-national’. This is one part of a larger effort to re-define the nation through a politics of exclusion. Those who do not fall within the bounds and ideas of the proclaimed majority are pushed to the margins. And now, those who question such politics are branded ‘seditious’.
However, as experiences from a decade ago on the other side of the world show, silencing critical voices under the guise of patriotism may lead to disastrous decisions, as well as run the run the risk of causing lasting damage to the political legitimacy of those in power over the long run.
As an Indian-American, the heated debates over nationalism being fomented are reminiscent of a decade ago, when following tragedy and by harnessing fear, patriotism was peddled as the currency for justice through vengeance. What constituted patriotism and what represented traitorous utterances were defined as a line in the sand when then President George W. Bush stated, ““Either you are with us... or you are with the enemy. There is no in between.”
Bush’s binary edict left no room for any uncertainty, or any dissent. And by publicly closing the issue, his words shrunk the democratic space for opposition. The similarities to the narrow debates in the Indian mainstream media on nationalism during the last few days are striking.
In the US in the early 2000s, as we see in India today, the mainstream media largely acted as cheerleaders to divisive government policies, rather than occupying their role as intrepid journalists, and in turn blaring discussions on what constituted patriotism and who could be branded anti-national. Just as beloved film stars such as Aamir Khan are lambasted for their criticism of growing intolerance in India, in 2003, country music band The Dixie Chicks (from President Bush’s home state of Texas) were declared unpatriotic for publicly criticising the invasion of Iraq.
Speaking to students who marched through Delhi in protest against what they see as a crackdown on dissent and free speech, they describe a similar reality. “Demanding people perform their nationalism in order to portray allegiance to the State draws clear lines of us versus them. They are trying to say who is Indian and who is not,” says Ankush, an MPhil student at JNU.
Indeed, the protests of the past week are specifically aimed at defending that democratic space required for critical dialogue. Students rejecting the tag ‘anti-national’ say a difference of opinion is not synonymous with sedition. Rather, the space for dissent is necessary for a healthy democracy.
There were many Indians at home and abroad that welcomed the BJP government, but it would be hard to see them willing to compromise on their beliefs in basic liberties such as freedom of speech or assembly, which appear as necessary conditions for a multi-ethnic, multi-religious, liberal democracy. As Professor Gopal Guru explained at a JNU rally last week, “You cannot build a nation on the idea of stigma.”
The results of the Bush years in the US are hard to argue. When critical voices were silenced, the United States embraced the blind jingoism that was offered as the dominant narrative by the State. A decade and a half later we find irreparable damage to the country’s standing in the world, an economy bled by wars, and a viciously polarised political climate. The Republican Party has lost the last two national elections, and today features vitriolic candidates that evoke mixed feelings of sadistic amusement and disgust.
On February 18, on a day of protest across India, it was announced that it would be now mandatory for all public universities to hoist the national flag at a height of 207 feet on their premises. Reminiscent of renaming French Fries as Freedom Fries, such a response tries to make a point out of what is seemingly a non-issue. While acknowledging the unique historical trajectories of each country, by drawing from the experiences of the past it seems doubtful whether the presence of the Indian flag will succeed in inculcating greater love for country that cannot be greater achieved through genuine respect for the Constitution and laws that form the backbone of Indian democracy.
Gaurav Madan has a Master’s in International Affairs from Columbia University, School of International and Public Affairs
The views expressed are personal