The argumentative Indian seems to have become the shrill Indian who abhors argument. It is almost as if nations have to be bound together not only by common citizenship but a common opinion as well. In our increasingly violent and abusive public sphere, where the internet and social media are dominated by misogyny parading as nationalism, the question is what does speaking in the name of the nation allow you to do.

Arguably, the success of the narrative of nationalism is on display in the fact that invoking the nation trumps all arguments. We have seen this in the allegations against Jawaharlal Nehru University student leaders Kanhaiya Kumar and Umar Khalid in February 2016, on the basis of a doctored video by an unscrupulous news channel. (The two were booked for sedition on the basis of the video of a campus event that reportedly showed them shouting anti-national slogans, though a fact-finding team later found the tape to be edited). We saw it this February in the suspension of lecturer Rajshree Ranawat by the Jai Narain Vyas University in Jodhpur for inviting Jawaharlal Nehru University professor Nivedita Menon, who supposedly harbours anti-national sentiments, for a campus event. And now everyone, from sitting parliamentarians to retired cricketers, is taking on a young woman, Gurmehar Kaur, for speaking against the violence instituted by the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad at Delhi University last week over the participation of Umar Khalid at a seminar in Ramjas College. However, the fact that the Hindu Right-wing student organisation launched the violence despite the fact that the college had cancelled its invitation to Khalid to avoid trouble is an indication of something deeper.

Student violence down the years

The nation has become the pretext for a turf war in the universities. And this is not recent. Nine years ago, in February 2008, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad had vandalised the history department at Delhi University, protesting the inclusion of an essay titled Three Hundred Ramayanas by the renowned poet and scholar AK Ramanujan in a course. It was a show of strength and an attempt to take on what was seen as a Leftist (read anti-national) department.

While there is a general vitiation of argument in the public sphere, what is happening in our premier universities needs a separate discussion. A historical perspective is useful. Those who come from the states of Kerala and West Bengal remember a time of student violence from the 1970s through to the 1990s when university campuses were battlefields. The discourse then was of revolution, bourgeois reactionaries and petty bourgeois conservatism with the lumpen elements aka goondas at the bottom of what was presented as an ideological struggle.

The walls of University College in Thiruvananthapuram were adorned with images of students who had died fighting for revolution against an assorted array of reactionaries. In northern Kerala, this mapped on to an ongoing struggle between cadre of the Communist party and those of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. Calcutta University saw a similar version of this struggle as the Left established its dominance on campus through violence and segregation of any other party affiliation. The Students Federation of India and the Democratic Youth Federation of India led the charge in purging campuses of perceived reactionary elements. This turf war was bloody, divisive and instrumental in making dissent on campus something that a student would pay for with their life. Teachers were not spared either. Campuses were polarised along a central faultline: with the revolution or against it. There was little space for argument, nuance or freedom of expression.

A new campus war

Delhi University and Jawaharlal Nehru University over the years have seen petty violence during student elections. A largely Left-liberal dispensation prevailed, given the dominant paradigm among academics. This paradigm was maintained through an assiduous process of appointment of those who subscribed to a rhetoric of Left-liberal secularism. The coming to power of the Bharatiya Janata Party at the Centre in 2014 and its systematic attack on institutions hitherto dominated by the Left establishment – including the Indian Council for Cultural Relations, Indian Council of Historical Research, Indian Council of Philosophical Research, Indian Council of Social Science Research, as also the Film and Television Institute of India (all of which have seen the appointment of personnel apparently loyal to the government) – is paralleled by the turf war initiated on campuses.

This time the war is being fought under the sign of the nation. The earlier paradigm is represented as subscribing to an etiolated cosmopolitanism and a doubtful patriotism. What we are seeing here in this organised violence on campuses is an attempt at a takeover through the ferocity of an earlier paradigm. We have seen the attempt by the Hindu Right to dominate the public sphere, aided by an anonymous mass of trolls on social media, but this is a specific war. It is a war that has been fought before, elsewhere. In the words of the great German poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht, “Alas, we who wished to lay the foundations of kindness. Could not ourselves be kind.” What was once a fight for the mind of the new generation under the sign of violence and revolution, has become a war in the name of the nation. If an earlier paradigm rejected free speech in the name of revolutionary progress, now it rejects it in the name of a majoritarian uniformity.