There has to be something seriously wrong with our democracy if people in power, including Arun Jaitley, have to demand the protection of our sovereignty and call the freedom to express disagreeable ideas an “alliance of subversion.” Coming from a Union minister, this is nothing short of a threat to students across the country.

The finance minister made the statement in the context of the row at Delhi University’s Ramjas College in February between the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, affiliated to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, and students, faculty and Left-wing groups. Not for the first time, the ABVP accused students of shouting “anti-national” slogans, sparking a free speech debate in the country.

Ever so often, when we talk about freedom of expression, we forget to factor in the environment that gives the individual access to ideas, the articulation to express, the confidence and a platform to speak up and the privilege of being heard. And because all expressions, however free, are not equal, colleges must nurture dissent, doing their best to level the inherent unevenness of society. And as a corollary, when the person of the stature of a Union finance minister speaks, he must do so with an awareness of the implications of what he says.

We are constantly shaken and stirred by ministers trying to convince us that there is a concerted effort to tear this country into pieces. This government always seems to be in a war-like state – but the targets are its own people. For a government that has a majority in the Lok Sabha and is actively calling for privatisation – thereby willingly divesting control in some institutions, it would seem – this seems a rather curious strategy. And we should realise that it is this very sense of fear and panic that has made the Bharatiya Janata Party a force and it is only by sustaining a near-psychotic sense of victimhood that they can further their own agendas.

One for all

Jaitley, while weighing in on the debate sparked by the Ramjas row, said that it is only in India that nationalism is a bad word. Let me also say this, finance minister: nationalism can be a good or a bad word, depending on who uses it, why and how. And the way in which Jaitley’s party seems to be using it, both directly and via its tertiary organisations, it is an entirely unacceptable word.

Should sovereignty be beyond questioning and discussion? A mature democracy should consider this question in all its seriousness. People do have differing notions on what it means and these are not abstract – they play out in governance, community identity as well as political and cultural spheres of living.

Sovereignty is not just territorial, it is something to be felt by a country’s citizens. The truth is, we have not empowered many with that sense of belonging and a unified identity. Hence, it is high time we confront the fact that there are wonderful communities in the country who do not see the Indian government as their own. They may not even see themselves as Indian. Does this make them anti-India? Not unless we pit them against us. I am not referring to cross-border terrorists but people who live within the boundaries that define our political map and love the land beneath their feet. Are we willing to address this palpable feeling?

This is not just about Kashmir, it is as much about many people in Northeastern India and Adivasis living in the far reaches of forests. They do not understand what it means to be Indian and the Indian State has done little to make them experience this Indian-ness we are demanding of them. If anything, we have exploited and distanced them. Caught as they are between violence from the State and those fighting against it, will they not question sovereignty?

Instead of listening to these voices with a clear mind and allowing for the expression of distrust, this government finds it more convenient to take the side of those who want to put a lid on any such voices. To me, this is ironic, since I come from a state where, not too long ago, powerful leaders demanded a separate Tamil country, an idea they publicly stated and debated. Yet, these leaders were not convicted for sedition and for the record, we are still part of the Union.

Other pillars

But the BJP is not alone in this nationalistic propaganda, the judiciary is playing a supporting role with great fervour. The Supreme Court’s interim order in November, directing cinema halls to mandatorily play the national anthem before movie screenings and demanding that the audience stand up on cue, is archaic and autocratic.

I cannot reconcile the Supreme Court obliging me to stand up for the anthem at the start of a film that for me, is essentially, a work of art with the same Court saying the anthem need not be played at the start of its own proceedings, which may be deciding matters at the heart of our national life. It should not have to be played at either place, in my view, but I am referring to the varying yardsticks.

This land must be celebrated for the empathy that is at the core of the ethical fibre, enshrined in the Constitution, respected and enforced in every sphere of life. This we have rarely done. But this government has gone even further, by placing its own idea of patriotic morality above everything else and those presiding over our Courts have been drawn into the “me too” syndrome.

The fourth estate is not far behind. It is indeed amusing whenever journalists make it a point to say that they are being fair and objective. I never thought that actually had to be said! What the media has emphatically achieved is the establishment of the unsaid and unspoken idea that being Right or Right of Centre is nationalistic and every other position denigrates the nation.

Recently, a leading journalist said: “I will always stand up for the national anthem and speak in favour of the Indian Army. Does that make me a Sanghi?” A clever framing of the question, since it is statements just like these that seem to make him acceptable to the Sangh Parivar or those sympathetic to them. With the above statement, he is also making it clear that the Sanghi counterpart dressed in green will hate him, only leading to his own market consolidation.

It is this polarisation that he and his ilk seek. Television channels make it a point to bring into our homes extreme views from both sides so that we may watch a WWF-like match unfold. A section of the press is no different from the political class – it uses religion, ethnicity, gender, and caste to trigger nationalistic bombardment. Provoke one person and the rest will follow, seems to be the modus operandi.

It is in this din, amplified by social media, that we are all trying to make sense of our lives. At one end of the spectrum exist those who see the present situation as grave and at the other end, there are many reveling in the moment. I am certain we are strong enough to withstand this crisis of culture, but what worries me is the possibility that very soon, we may all choose to be deaf and mute.