When even Minister of State for Home Affairs Kiren Rijiju takes a step back, you know something is slightly off. Rijiju has become infamous for willfully wading into controversies with an inflammatory comment. In fact, he was responsible for turning Ramjas College into a national story with a tweet asking who was “polluting” a young student’s mind. Yet even Rijiju had to temper his reaction and admit later that he didn’t know what he was tweeting about. And the junior minister isn’t the only one. In the last few days, a number of commentators from the Right side of the spectrum have sounded notes of caution about the approach to Ramjas and the Kaur epsiode.
For two years in a row, February has brought with it violence and protests on college campuses in Delhi, accompanied by a fractious debate over nationalism. In 2016, it was Jawaharlal Nehru University. This year, an invitation to JNU student Umar Khalid – who was accused of sedition in 2016 – turned into protests and violence outside Delhi University’s Ramjas College. When Delhi University student Gurmehar Kaur spoke up against the violence, the focus turned to her and an earlier video she made calling for peace as the daughter of a soldier who had died in action. The conversation became as much about Kaur’s right to advocate peace, as it was about the violence at Ramjas College.
But even so, a few commentators said that the Right-wing student group, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, was wrong to act the way it did at Ramjas College. R Jagannathan, Editorial Director of Swarajya, a magazine that calls itself the “authoritative voice of reason of the liberal centre-right”, said that the Right should pick its battles better.
The real lesson to learn for the Right from this development is to know which battles to fight and which ones to ignore. Taking on a naïve and possibly idealistic young woman is not going to get you any brownie points even if she is 100 per cent wrong. Ignoring it would have been the best option.
JNU professor Makarand Paranjape, who has said on Twitter that he is happy to be called Sanghi, went even further and called the Ramjas incident a “trap.”
Paranjape’s construction goes further than Jagannathan’s pick-your-battles advice, and effectively victim-blames the students of Ramjas College for having “provoked” the ABVP into violence, as if that were the inevitable outcome. Yet even as he embraces that fallacy, Paranjape acknowledges that the ABVP’s violent approach did it no favours. As he writes in the Indian Express,
Umar Khalid and Shehla Rashid seem to fit the classic definition of agents provocateurs. Such persons inflame their enemies into making mistakes, committing illegal acts, thus compromising their own cause. The whole organisation – this time, ABVP – ends up discredited.
But does this exonerate ABVP? Clearly not. When will they learn that resorting to fisticuffs or bending the law is the worst possible strategy to win public sympathy? I can think of a hundred other ways to fight such battles: The best would be to take on their political opponents in an open debate.
On Sunday, Tavleen Singh, an Indian Express columnist who has frequently spoken up in support of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, took a different stand from the other two, who had simply suggested the ABVP messed up by getting violent at Ramjas.
Singh instead questioned the very principle being pulled up here: Whether the ABVP has a right to question someone else’s nationalism, and if pride in a country can be enforced by violent means.
Nationalism can never be imposed by fiat. This should be obvious. But, for some reason, it is becoming increasingly obvious that it is not. Since Narendra Modi became Prime Minister, the idea of imposing nationalism by force appears to have gripped too many BJP political leaders. Ministers in particular should refrain from labelling people, but almost daily we hear them warning ‘anti-nationals’ that there will be dire consequences for those who speak against India. A particularly foolish statement came from a minister in the Haryana government last week. It is unworthy of being repeated here.
Unfortunately, he is not the only BJP leader to have offered his opinion on the brawl in Delhi University between students who believe they are nationalists and those they have labelled ‘anti-national’. It is my view that nobody has the right to decide who is a nationalist and who is not, but the two can play the game. So let me make it clear that I believe anyone who seeks to crush dissent and free speech on university campuses is anti-national.