Army tank in JNU: Should the sword be mightier than the pen?
Once again, there is an emphatic call for a major shift in India’s much beleaguered higher education strategy. But this time, it is not emanating from the office of the human resource development (HRD) ministry. Rather, the demand follows from a chest thumping and energetic flag waving ‘Tiranga March’ that was recently held at the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU).
The vice-chancellor, probably overwhelmed by the occasion, asked the minister of state for petroleum and natural gas and the minister of state for external affairs to help the university procure an Army tank for the campus. Clearly, for the current JNU administration, it appears, that to instil nationalism one must reverse the long-held maxim that the ‘pen is mightier than the sword’. A few days earlier, in fact, the prime minister’s office in a similar mood advised the HRD ministry to draw upon elements from existing military schools (Sainik Schools) to ‘promote discipline, physical fitness and a patriotic outlook’.
But how do tanks, large flags, chest thumping marches, discipline-for-itself and martyr walls help inspire nationalism and patriotism? This becomes a particularly good question, if not a surprising one, because, historically speaking, ideas of nationalism and patriotism have never emerged from military cantonments, the soldier’s barracks or from a general’s writings. If anything, nation-making and national identities have been crafted by politicians, bureaucrats, lawyers, thinkers, philosophers, historians and last but not least by poets.
The Indian national movement, we know, was driven by the intellectual robustness of the Indian civilian. It was led by ordinary peasants, workers and middle class professionals like lawyers and teachers. This undisciplined lot went on to brave bullets, were jailed, lathi-charged and suffered untold humiliations at the hands of the colonial rulers. In other words, nationalism and patriotism in India was constructed as a noisy affair involving disagreements, struggles for justice and moral courage by common and ordinary folk.
On the other hand, take the case of the now less remembered Royal Indian Navy mutiny (also called the Bombay mutiny) of February 18, 1946. Over 10,000 Indian sailors across 66 ships openly revolted against their British officers. While the Indian Communist Party welcomed the strike of the sailors, both the Congress and the Muslim League remained unconvinced. Their argument was that a rebellious navy could end up compromising the ability of the national movement’s leadership from achieving a negotiated and constitutional form of freedom. Put differently, the armed forces belonged in the barracks and not on the streets. Even members of the Indian National Army under Subhas Chandra Bose (incidentally a bureaucrat by training) acquired much of their legitimacy and standing in the freedom movement from the celebrated INA trials, which saw their defence carried out by legal stalwarts like Tej Bahadur Sapru, Jawaharlal Nehru, Bhulabhai Desai and Asaf Ali.
In other words, the Indian civilian through non-violence, ideas about justice, the ability to debate and through alternative historical imaginations brought down and ended one of the world’s most powerful modern empires: the British Raj. Any Army tank will compare poorly with this magnificent and inspiring history of resistance and opposition of the mostly un-armed, the poor and the disempowered.
While the JNU vice-chancellor has undoubtedly demeaned his office, what should remain unpardonable is the disdain he has shown for the rich political and intellectual contributions of the ordinary unarmed Indian. A tank or frenetic flag waving does not produce or inspire nationalism. Instead it requires careful intellectual work and the force of moral courage to fight for the truth to win. This is the lesson the entire world has learnt from the words, writings and deeds of Gandhi, Nehru, Ambedkar and Tagore. It is important to consider the contributions of these towering ‘civilians’ with the same respect as the sacrifice and suffering of the masses of ordinary and powerless men and women.
Independent India will gain much more by ranking the pen over the sword. Perhaps, it would be better to ask the honourable ministers for more water tanks within the campus rather than a retired army battle tank, which will only rust with time.
Rohan D’Souza is associate professor, Kyoto University
The views expressed are personal