There were two remarkable speeches in the Lok Sabha on Wednesday. One, by Sugata Bose of the Trinamool Congress was coherent and calm, and raised the deep concerns and fears of many about the narrow nationalism that the BJP preaches and the attack on universities. The other, by Smriti Irani, was inchoate and melodramatic, but intent on self-exculpation and defining the “enemy within”.
Bose said the nationalism espoused by the government was “narrow, selfish and arrogant”, words he said that were used by Subhas Chandra Bose for the new German nationalism that he witnessed in Europe in the mid-1930s.
Irani, quoting Cicero (“a European philosopher, Roman at that”) declared people who did not share her ideas or whose ideas she did not understand were traitors undermining the nation from within.
Bose told parliament:
“…no group within the Indian polity or in its diaspora is the univocal spokesperson for the nation. History shows us that state-sponsored or state-condoned campaigns against so-called anti-nationals leads to authoritarian rule and the destruction of democratic principles. If the university and students are attacked, the legacy of the anti-colonial freedom struggle, and of democratic reconstruction is gravely undermined.”
What is nationhood?
In the measured tones of the university teacher he has been for three decades, he spoke of admiring Kanhaiya Kumar’s speech at Jawaharlal Nehru University and disagreeing with parts of it, and reminded Parliament of the different ideas of nationhood and national unity that had animated the thinking of national heroes like Gandhi, Nehru, Subhas Bose, Vivekananda, Chittaranjan Das, Sri Aurobindo and Tagore, and that this government might label Tagore an anti-national, for his ideas.
Irani described the alleged sloganeers at Jawaharlal Nehru University as those who had been “mobilised as a weapon against the State.” She read from students’ pamphlets revealing to Parliament both the occasionally puerile nature of campus politics and her own ignorance of the multiplicity of religious and cultural traditions in India as well as the purpose of universities. “What is Mahishasur martyrdom day?” she asked addressing the bemused Speaker of the House. She might have asked her party colleague Udit Raj who has been a guest and speaker at such a celebration in JNU some years ago.
Tilting at windmills
She said: “Champions of free speech… I want to know whether they would discuss this particular topic… on the streets of Kolkata. I dare them this.” It is a curious dare. Irani’s own experience may mean that she is unaware that universities allow freedom of thought, imagination and expression, quite different from the street. But signalling that a university should be judged by the standards of the street should raise questions about her fitness as education minister.
There were other flourishes in Wednesday’s speech that any government that believes in common decency and a modicum of truth would find at the very least embarrassing. Irani, however, has won high praise from Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who tweeted the video of her speech with the message “Satyameva Jayate”. With eyes welling up, her chin quivering, a style reminiscent of her successful career as a soap-opera actor, she told Parliament that Rohith Vemula could have been revived, and might now still be alive, but for a mob that did not let a doctor reach him. “Nobody allowed a doctor near this child, to revive this child, to take him to the hospital. Nobody allowed a doctor near him. Instead what was done was that his body was used as a political tool, hidden. No police was allowed till 6.30, the next morning.”
This is a straightforward lie, as outlined in a NewsMinute report. It is a heartless lie on the day when Radhika Vemula, Rohith’s mother, was in the capital to ask for justice for her son and those who continue to face the discrimination he suffered. It’s a lie that makes Rohith’s friends and hostel mates responsible for his death. This lie compounds the efforts of Sangh Parivar organisations and government ministers to label the dead Rohith Vemula as anti-national and to deny that he was Dalit. It was Irani who set the ball rolling announcing that “this is not a Dalit non-Dalit issue”. Yet, she had found it necessary to repeat in Parliament the fib that there was a Dalit faculty member on the University of Hyderabad committee that suspended Rohith Vemula.
Speaking before Irani, Bose had said:
“Rohith's tragedy should stir our collective conscience, including that of our government. Unfortunately, we have a heartless government that refuses to listen to the cries of despair coming from the marginalised sections of our society. Instead of assuring social justice to all, the ruling party wishes to use the student unrest in our universities to claim a monopoly on nationalism and tar all of their critics with the same brush of anti-nationalism.”
This government has set a course to try and divide this nation into people who are with them (nationalists) and people who are against them (anti-national). In the universities that come under Irani’s charge, the battle lines have been drawn, and her exhortation in Parliament: “Help me build the nation, not destroy it from within”, is just another way of saying if you are not with me, you are against me.