Facebook is not the best place to get an education, but you can learn something almost anywhere. A recent post came with a quote: “Nationalism teaches you to take pride in s*** you’ve never done, and hate people you’ve never met”, and the comment: “Applies to all the rabid right-wing pseudo-nationalists!”

The writer does not appear to notice that his choice of words would easily allow a variation of his own comment to be used against him, perhaps replacing pseudo-nationalists with pseudo-secularists or, more colourfully, sickulars, or pseudo-liberals or rabid Leftists – rabidity, after all, is not the exclusive domain of the political Right. Indeed, I have often had occasion to be astonished by the verbal violence of many of those who proclaim themselves to be advocates of peace, reconciliation and human understanding.

Playing with stereotypes

In the wake of the raging debate – more rightly, slanging match – around the Jawaharlal Nehru University controversy, we have been subjected to much from both sides of the ideological spectrum, including the bewildering spectacle on television of an alternately belligerent and lachrymose general. One of the most popular memes in the present context has been the contrast between the seditious students of JNU and the brave soldiers who guard our borders against all enemies. That at least some of these soldiers, and at least one recently killed in action, are from JNU remains outside the scope of the noisier discussions, as does the fact that the attack on JNU is based substantially on the fabricated evidence of a tampered video. Nevertheless, a gaggle of generals and other ex-service officers has recommended, among various correctives to the mutinous propensities of the student community, the installation of an Army tank on campus to “instil nationalism” among students.

At play here is an old stereotype: the Army, with its discipline, dedication, unquestioning obedience, camaraderie and spirit of sacrifice as a model of citizenship. This appeals to the fringes on both Left and Right (though they may have different armies in mind).

Unfortunately, while certain virtues make for a good Army, they are not necessary prerequisites of good citizenship, and are likely counter-productive in many walks of life. Certainly, in the sphere of education and research – and the various professional streams that arise out of the sciences and liberal arts – a certain anarchy of thought is a sine qua non of productivity and success, and hence, of national development.

Moreover, virtues transferred to the wrong context, easily become vices. If sheer dedication, obedience and sacrifice were the touchstones of morality, the jihadi suicide bomber – with his easy willingness to throw away life (his own and the lives of others) on command – would be our ideal. This is the point that many – particularly, but not exclusively, on the political Right – miss out. The ideals that they imagine, and the societies they seek to create, are not particularly different from those of the very groups they demonise.

There is another problem with the tank on the campus (and related ideas) as solution – what if we have a more disciplined, dedicated and militarised student community committed to the same allegedly seditious ideologies?

What we need, in fact, is not more unthinking students, but rather, more thinking soldiers, including their generals. And, in all three categories, those who are infinitely better educated and more reasonable in their orientation.

As an aside, I have had the occasion to interact with many students from India’s premier Jawaharlal Nehru University, and I fear the standards of education a majority among them reflect are not particularly encouraging (with notable exceptions, of course, and conceding that the fault lies, not with the University alone, but substantially with the endemic malaise in the country’s education system). Indeed, in view of the fact that the entire student movement in the University has been dominated for decades by Marxist and Maoist dogma, and more recently by strains of an assertive and equally doctrinaire Hindutva, there is little evidence of the liberal traditions behind which sections of the student community and faculty are presently trying to take cover.

Death of discourse

What we are seeing today is a collapse of civil discourse in all spheres – polarised extremes deny all possibility of justification to those who disagree. Abuse, slander and falsification are all acceptable as long as they push the cause forward. We have witnessed repeated examples of this in the country’s highest forums. Where argument will not work, a label will (prefixing “pseudo” to anything is a good beginning). On a personal note, when the United Progressive Alliance was in power, I was often accused of being right wing. Someone had even very kindly posted a detailed profile of mine on the Internet indicating, among other fictions, that I was a member of Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad during my student days – a falsehood, I would like to reiterate. Nowadays, with the opposite side in power, I have had the good fortune of being accused by an individual of great eminence of receiving money from the Islamic State aka Daesh, and by another of somewhat lesser eminence of having a (presumably secret) agenda, all because I had articulated the assessment that there is no imminent risk of this terrorist formation overrunning India.

Across India today, some would like to bring all dissent from renewed orthodoxies under the offence of sedition, others would like to bring incitement to mass murder under the protection of free speech but neither side has much patience for calm or rational discourse nor any familiarity with, or commitment to, the ideological underpinnings of India’s Constitution.

And so, to those who opportunistically proclaim liberalism as their creed: democracy is not (at least not exclusively) an arena to hurl slogans and abuse at your adversaries. And to those on the other side: can a government that is willing, indeed eager, to talk to Pakistan – the fountainhead of terrorism in South Asia – not have a civil conversation with India’s own citizens?