First it was giant national flags in universities, now it is a giant “wall of valour”.

Human Resource Development Minister Prakash Javadekar announced on Tuesday that colleges and universities across the country will build a wall measuring 15 feet by 20 feet on which will be painted the images of the 21 soldiers awarded the Param Vir Chakra, India’s highest military decoration.

The minister said that the idea originated with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s Tarun Vijay, and added that the purpose of the wall was to awaken “feelings of patriotism, which exist in each and every person” and that “activities like this can change the atmosphere of the college”.

Changing the atmosphere of colleges and universities is a major part of the Bharatiya Janata Party government and Sangh Parivar’s agenda.

The RSS, which played a less than salutary role in the movement against colonialism and for Independence, has little value for the nation that emerged from that battle. It sees those who celebrate that nation – based on a plurality of peoples, cultures and ideologies – as its enemies. This is why it is most threatened by universities, which historically have been battlegrounds of ideas and ideological ferment.

Hindutva nationalism

Soldier worship and flag-waving are the secular components of the BJP’s and RSS’ new nationalism, which is rooted in the primacy of Hindus and a unitary politico-religious ideology that it calls Hindutva.

The national security rhetoric – preserving the nation from the barbarian at the borders – is a smart political strategy. It covers both for the absence of universally recognisable figures from the BJP or RSS that have played a prominent role in nation building, and the erasure of the personalities that have dominated our public discourse since independence. Javadekar set this out quite explicitly. He said before Independence, revolutionaries and patriots won us our freedom, but for the last 70 years it was soldiers on the border who were defending it.

It is also a smart political strategy because no rival party is likely to contest the significance of the armed forces or the purported threat to the nation from Pakistan. All governments since independence have used both as a cover for their own errors of commission or omission on matters relating to insurgencies and social movements, political and social oppression, and economic, environmental and human rights violations.

On university campuses, however, these are among the subjects that animate political debate on the ideas of, among other things, nationhood and nationalism, constitutionalism and citizenship.

To curb these tendencies, over the last three years, the BJP government has put its heft behind a systematic effort to criminalise student activity and label regular university programmes as anti-national should they contain subjects the BJP and RSS does not like discussed, or views that do not match its own.

The RSS student wing, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, has been at the forefront of this effort, with its members acting as informants and increasingly violent vigilantes for the RSS and the government’s war on ideas.

With the police providing cover, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad and other Sangh outfits have used the threat of violence to disrupt seminars, lectures, plays, and other activities that they deem to be anti-national and have violently assaulted fellow students, university professors and even vice-chancellors.

Although Jawaharlal Nehru University and Delhi University are talked about most often, many universities and colleges in smaller towns across North India have been under attack too.

Members of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad shout slogans during a protest march in New Delhi in February 2016. (Photo credit: Adnan Abidi/Reuters).

The narrative of nationalism

Part of this campaign pitched the citizen’s right to constitutional freedoms vs the narrative of soldiers dying at the border. Nothing exemplified this better than the attack on Delhi University undergraduate Gurmehar Kaur, who took a public stand against the RSS student wing, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, after its criminal attack on faculty and students in her university in February. Kaur, whose father was killed in the Kargil war in 1999, had previously made a video that promotes peace between India and Pakistan. In the video, she called for better political leadership in both countries and for talks to end the conflict that has killed too many fathers of children like her on both sides of the border.

The power of Kaur’s video lay in its message that people were laying down their lives in a conflict that was kept alive by poor political leadership and a narrative of hate. It challenged the BJP and the Sangh’s propaganda that the country was under siege by a dangerous enemy and that dead soldiers were martyrs to the cause of India’s freedom. Kaur was vilified, including by government ministers, and threatened with violence.

Just as Kaur spoke out for her fellow students, so did they for her. Students in Delhi demonstrated that they would not cede the space they have by right and would fight the attacks on individuals and their universities and contest the Sangh’s claim to a monopoly over patriotism.

Javadekar seemed to be mindful of all this while announcing the “wall of valour”. He said: “We don’t want to give lessons in patriotism to anyone, after all that feeling is in all of us.” But in his very next sentence he reaffirmed the Sangh’s view that patriotism not constantly on display is no patriotism at all. He said: “However, to re-awaken it [patriotism], so as to constantly remember it, that is very important”. The wall would be a site of just such patriotic inspiration, he said.

Building walls

What should give any thinking university administrator pause is Javadekar’s repeated statements that the wall and its surroundings would be maintained not through a departmental grant but through subscriptions collected from students and teachers. He said, “It will not be done under orders. It is something that should happen through self-motivation/being inspired, and it will.”

The patriotism of students will be tested against the wall. Those who contribute will be fully awakened patriots and those who do not will be something less than that. The Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad’s role here is almost pre-ordained. Its part in organising the inaugural function in New Delhi that Javadekar addressed was acknowledged fulsomely. Universities can now look forward to its continuing role in “changing the atmosphere” in their institutions, this time by building walls that divide, while claiming to unite.