On Friday, Gurmehar Kaur mounted a rather simple protest against the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad’s violence at Ramjas College last week. She posted a picture of herself on a social media site holding up a placard that read: “I am a student of Delhi University. I am not afraid of the ABVP. I am not alone. Every student of India is with me.”
This was an emphatic statement in support of free speech. The reaction to this, though, was shocking. Right-wing sympathisers soon dug out a video Kaur had made last year, in which she made a plea for peace with Pakistan, even though her father had been killed in the 1999 Kargil War.
In an blur of logic, her protest against violence by the ABVP, the students wing of the Rashtriya Swamayamsevak Sangh, has been misrepresented as an attack on Indian nationalism.
Rape threats were made against her, she was mocked by cricketer Virender Sehwag and patronised by Bollywood actor Randeep Hooda. One of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s top intellectuals, Rakesh Sinha, said that Kaur was “trolling” her dead father. The Union government itself thought it wise to bully Kaur, with minister Kiren Rijuju asking, “Who’s polluting this young girl’s mind?” As if that wasn’t enough, Bharatiya Janata Party MP Pratap Simha compared Kaur to India’s most-wanted terrorist, Dawood Ibrahim.
Nationalism in flux
For a party that has made pride in the army a vital element of its plank, how did things reach such a pass? How could the daughter of a soldier who had been killed in Kargil be subjected to this sort of mass abuse, ridicule and intimidation? The BJP and its supporters have spent years perfecting the rhetoric that has transformed the Indian soldier into bulletproof shield to deflect all debate. How did this bulletproof shield collapse so easily?
Respecting soldiers and their sacrifices is a near-sacred part of all nationalisms. That India today can shake this up reflects the flux in which Indian nationalism finds itself. Indian nationalism was once a big tent. Today it is being redefined as ideological, its contours sharply marked by ethnicity and religion. Increasingly, to be Indian, one needs to think, act and behave in a certain way – conforming more often than not to some shade of Hindutva. Simply being born in India – or even losing your father fighting in a war to defend the country – isn’t enough.
The beginnings of modern Indian nationalism were inclusive, broad and open-ended. Everyone living in British India was automatically seen to be Indian. In the Congress, elite Indians could meet together – no matter their ethnicity, mother tongue or religion – and dream of a joint community.
Of course, tensions existed. But, at least on paper, it didn’t matter if you were Dalit, Muslim, Naga or Tamil – theoretically, everyone had an equal claim on India. Even as the Congress implicitly accepted communal solutions such as Partition or made common cause with the Hindu Mahasabha at times, its explicit status as a party open to all Indians remained unchanged. While often dismissed by the Congress’ critics as empty rhetoric, this somewhat idealistic stance helped India after 1947 avoid the religious bigotry that convulsed Pakistan, given its reliance on Muslim nationalism as a foundational principle.
Yet, the Congress’ Gandhianism wasn’t the only vision of India. Hindu Mahasabha leader VD Savarkar’s vision of nationalism was ideological, proposing a nation based on the ethnic marker of being Hindu. Unlike the Congress’ big tent nationalism, based on birth and land, Savarkar based his on blood and belief.
Savarkarite nationalism sounds ugly but it is also a rather popular sort of nationalism. Current-day Europe rests on the bedrock of imagined communities and their consecrations into states. While the nationalisms of Europe and Savarkar’s differ in their specifics (the former places great emphasis on language), at their core they are the same animal. It is not surprising that Savarkar greatly admired Giuseppe Mazzini, an ardent nineteenth century Italian nationalist.
The rise of Hindutva
Due to the complete political domination of the Union government by the Congress party till the 1970s, Savarkarite nationalism saw little traction across India. This started to change in the 1980s, as the Bharatiya Janata Party – and more importantly, Hindutva ideology – acquired a national role.
Till 1986, India recognised citizenship rights based on the principle of jus soli – right of the soil. Anyone born in India was Indian. Since 1986, however, as per new laws framed by Parliament, jus soli would not only apply to children born in India. After 1986, a new principle would apply: jus sanguinis, right of blood. One needed to have Indian parents to be Indian. Simply being born on the land would not do.
This new principle of citizenship was set in stone by a 2003 amendment to the Citizenship Act, which cemented the concept of jus sanguinis citizenship. It also made another addition to the concept of an Indian: you could now be an “overseas citizen”. The shift from land to blood, from Gandhi to Savarkar in the realm of citizenship was complete. A person born in India might not be eligible for Indian citizenship but a person who left India would be, simply because his ancestors once were Indian.
The Bharatiya Janata Party has moved decisively on this front. In September 2015, the Modi government notified rules that made asylum contingent on religion. Expectedly, India will not take in Muslim refugees. Modi also did something which was even more significant: he reached out to persons of Indian origin in foreign lands, making them a part of his political rhetoric. The principle of jus sanguinis is now not only limited to the Citizenship Act – it actually informs BJP policy every time Modi holds a gala in New York or London and gets American or Britsh Hindus to support him. This is then relayed back to India, where news channels and pop culture see this overseas support as a mark of approval.
While it’s easy to connect the BJP to Savarkarite nationalism, it would be a mistake to think the phenomenon is restricted only to the ruling party. The spread of Hindutva – and the sagging of the Gandhian big tent – is broad-based. After all, the first blow against jus soli was struck by the Rajiv Gandhi-led Congress government.
The Gurmehar Kaur incident proves this even further. Savarkar’s ideological nationalism was once restricted to hard-boiled Hindutva ideologues. Today, even cricketers, actors and a swarm of social media users propagate its basic ideas. Like all ideological and ethnic nationalisms, it is fierce – so much so that even a dead army man’s daughter’s nationalism could fall short of it. If she fails to subscribe to the Hindutva version of nationalism, even she can be compared to a terrorist.
The nationalism of ideology and ethnicity can sometimes unleash powerful forces. In Europe, the nineteenth century’s obsession with ethnic nationalism led to near-continuous wars and conflict right till 1945. In India’s immediate vicinity, countries like Bangladesh and Sri Lanka have an ideological nationalisms based on linguistic ethnicity while Pakistan’s is based on religion. Unsurprisingly, all three have seen immense amounts of turmoil since colonialism ended in South Asia.
The Gurmehar Kaur incident, as corrosive as it is, might just be the beginning. If Savarkarite nationalism remains in the ascendent, India might be in for some tumultuous times.