The most disturbing aspect of the current hysteria about “anti-nationals” is the ignorance displayed by considerable sections of the educated middle classes about constitutional rights, sedition laws, and the history of the tortuous path India took to consolidate itself as a nation after gaining Independence 69 years ago.

The Sangh Parivar and its cohorts, driven by their political agenda, may well have sponsored the row over anti-national slogans raised by students in Jawaharlal Nehru University, but there are a surprisingly large number of people – not all of them Modi bhakts or BJP camp followers – who are so agitated about the “threat” posed to India by subversive sloganeering that they are ready to justify, in the name of “nationalism”, police excesses in a university, and even the outrageous assault on journalists, professors and undertrials inside a courtroom.

Much of the problem lies in the newfound obsession with a muscular nationalism that requires a constant reaffirmation of loyalty from the citizenry to the State. This has fuelled competitive jingoism on television and social media platforms, which, in turn, has led to a flag-waving chauvinist frenzy quite different from the glow of national pride seen across the country in the first flush of Independence.

Ignorance is not bliss

Oblivious to the law, and quite unaware of the way past governments and the political class have accommodated not just separatist opinions but even those who advocated armed insurgency, these self-styled patriots see any questions raised about Indian sovereignty as a dastardly crime, and demand drastic action.

For instance, the Tamil icon CN Annadurai (popularly known as Anna) started his maiden speech in the Rajya Sabha in April 1962 with the following declaration:

"I claim Sir, to come from a country, a part in India now, but which I think is of a different stock, not necessarily antagonistic. I belong to the Dravidian stock. I am proud to call myself a Dravidian. That does not mean that I am against a Bengali or a Maharashtrian or a Gujarati. As Robert Burns has stated, ‘A man is a man for all that’. I say that I belong to the Dravidian stock and that is only because I consider that the Dravidians have got something concrete, something distinct, something different to offer to the nation at large. Therefore it is that we want self-determination.”

Members of the House heard spellbound Annadurai’s openly separatist remarks. Most members disagreed with him, including Atal Behari Vajapayee who fiercely contested his demand for self-determination. But no one called him 'anti-nationalist' nor were demands made that he be arrested for sedition although the timing of his call for self-determination could not have been more provocative considering that Chinese troops were massed menacingly on the Sino-Indian border at that time and would invade India a few months later. The maturity and patience of the then political leadership paid handsome dividends. Within two years, Anna had dropped his separatist demand. He was chief minister of Tamil Nadu within five years. The two parties who inherited his political legacy – M Karunanidhi’s DMK and J Jayalalithaa’s AIADMK – have since then alternately ruled this large state considered one of the most prosperous in the country.

A case for dialogue

In the past, successive governments and a variety of political leaders have twisted and turned in order to deal with demands from religious, ethnic and regional groups that sought to defy the authority of the Indian Union. These include the BJP’s long-standing ally, the Shiromani Akali Dal, which, in the famous 1973 Anandpur Sahib Resolution, defined the Sikhs as a separate nation and demanded autonomy if not full-fledged independence.

Even in the case of violent insurgencies in the Northeast, most notably in Nagaland and Mizoram, governments including the present Modi regime have, while militarily combating armed militants, always left space for negotiated settlement, choosing to discuss terms with those who preached separatist ideas as long as they did not try to push them with violent action. As for the Kashmir Valley, secessionist demonstrations and meetings were an integral part of the landscape there, and the separatist Hurriyat were allowed to meet Pakistani diplomats and visiting leaders even by the Atal Bihari Vajapyee-led NDA government.

More pertinent to the current sedition controversy in JNU, there have hardly been any restrictions on supporters of various separatist groups and movements to hold peaceful meetings, makes speeches and raise slogans articulating their demands. In fact, security and intelligence agencies have found these meetings useful to keep a watch on those participating in them so that they can investigate further if participants had connections with terrorist groups who were planning violence. Indeed, if the authorities genuinely suspected a terror link between the JNU students and jihadi groups, they should have quietly monitored their activities to expose the full network and their handlers instead of the crude raid and arrest of the Jawaharlal Nehru Students Union president, who belongs to the student wing of an established parliamentary party.

Strike a harmony

It is also especially hypocritical of the BJP and its cheerleaders to stain the reputation of a prestigious university given the ruling party’s own political alliance with the Akali Dal in Punjab, and the Peoples Democratic Party or PDP in Jammu and Kashmir. The Akali Dal has helped in the construction of a grand memorial to Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale inside the Golden Temple complex in Amritsar. The slain Sikh militant leader was responsible for the killing of hundreds of innocent citizens, as well as a large number of soldiers and policemen. The Punjab government also contributed to the construction of a sports stadium to commemorate Bhindranwale in his village Rode, in Moga district. And, much like the few dozen JNU students who raised slogans hailing Afzal Guru, the PDP criticises his hanging, believes he is a martyr and even demanded a few months ago that his mortal remains be brought back to Kashmir so that he can be given a hero’s burial.

Unfortunately, much of the past and even contemporary realities are lost in the haze of knee-jerk nationalism. The real story of a nation learning to strike a harmony between different communities and regions, and learning to live with conflicting voices in its head, is being forgotten, with nobody bothering to craft a genuine nationalist narrative. On the other hand, a party whose political and ideological ancestors played no role in the freedom struggle appears to have a free run to undermine the foundations of the republic.