Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Adityanath and his cabinet last week saw it fit to clear an ordinance regulating private universities in the state. Apart from submitting to various government checks and controls, these institutions must now offer an undertaking that their campuses will not be sites “anti-national activities in any way”.

It is not clear why such action had to be taken on an emergency footing, why the ordinance could not have been a bill passed after due discussion. When asked, emissaries of the state government and the Bharatiya Janata Party declined to define what qualified as “anti-national activities”.

Uttar Pradesh Deputy Chief Minister Dinesh Sharma, however, admitted that such measures were necessary to prevent a repeat of an incident that had taken place in Jawaharlal Nehru University in February 2016. On that occasion, students of the university were booked for sedition because they allegedly shouted “anti-national” slogans.

In the furious prime time debates that followed, television channels raised the spectre of a shadowy cabal operating within Indian institutions and intellectual circles, bent on the country’s dissolution. It became the genesis of the “tukde, tukde gang” or the “Break India Gang” – ostensibly because slogans to this effect had been chanted by the Jawaharlal Nehru University students.

The government had already been building a case against “anti-nationals”, or anyone who was not hollering “Bharat Mata Ki Jai” at the drop of a hat. The Jawaharlal Nehru University incident and the public frenzy that followed turned an instinct for bullying into institutional policy. Over the last few years, the impulse to repress or criminalise dissent has flowed from the Centre to various organs of the state, including the security apparatus.

The “tukde, tukde gang” conspiracy theory has been used to justify state action against a range of individuals – now a leftwing author, now a Dalit protestor, now a student. The idea is so deeply implanted in the public psyche that few remember that the allegations in the original JNU case have yet to be proven.

Damned by fake news

On the night of February 9, 2016, a group of students gathered on campus to mark the death of Parliament attack convict Afzal Guru, hanged in 2013. Soon afterwards, television channels aired video clips which appeared to show students shouting slogans that the government considered seditious.

Kanhaiya Kumar, who was then president of the Jawaharlal Nehru Students’ Union, was arrested, as were two fellow students, Umar Khalid and Anirban Bhattacharya. Weeks later, at least three of the videos that spurred their arrest were found to have been doctored. A producer for Zee News, one of the channels which circulated the videos, even resigned saying his “conscience has started to revolt”.

As media watchdog The Hoot wrote, television channels such as Times Now and Zee News were guilty of “fuelling state action”. Police personnel who had been present at the original event had seen no cause for filing charges, the site noted. They did so only after the videos emerged and news anchors had conducted a media trial.

The media turned on Khalid with particular venom. News X, for instance, claimed to have had an “Intelligence Bureau alert” that Khalid was a “Jaish-e-Mohammed sympathiser”. The Intelligence Bureau called it “a figment of someone’s imagination”. But the so-called terror links gave the case another lurid coat of paint, ensuring it made headlines for weeks.

Three years down the line, all three students are out on bail. It was only this January that the Delhi Police filed a chargesheet, a 1,200-page tome compiled without the approval of the Delhi government. The police submitted 13 video clips as part of the evidence, attaching a report from the Central Forensic Science Laboratory certifying to their authenticity.

The Aam Aadmi Party government is yet to give sanction to prosecute in the matter.

Lawyers hold a banner during a silent march in support of advocate Surendra Gadling who was arrested by Pune police for his alleged links to the Bheema-Koregaon violence case, in Nagpur, on Thursday, June 7, 2018.

The rise of the ‘urban naxal’

The term “tukde, tukde gang” is believed to have been coined two years after the Jawaharlal Nehru University episode by television anchor Arnab Goswami, who saw a direct link between “these political freeloaders, these Umar Khalids, these Kanhaiyas, these SIMI and Pakistan supporters” and the violence in a town near Pune on New Year’s Day in 2018.

Dalit groups and their supporters had gathered to commemorate the victory of the British, whose armies had several Mahar soldiers, against the armies of the Peshwas, who were notorious for the casteist practices they espoused. The Dalit groups had been set upon by men wielding saffron flags. Days later, Goswami unleashed his grand “expose” of the “tukde, tukde gang”, people apparently deployed by “a sinking political party” to ignite insurrections. One of these sinister individuals was Gujarat legislator Jignesh Mevani, a prominent Dalit leader, who had addressed a public meeting the day before the violence.

State action in the months that followed seemed to take its cue from the media narrative. In March, when Dalits organisations held a protest demanding action against Hindutva leaders who had instigated the violence of January 1, the Maharashtra police rounded up about 4,000 Dalits in “combing operations” instead.

The new consensus in the security establishment was that the Bhima Koregaon violence had been instigated by Dalit activists who had made speeches at December 31 event. Starting in April 2018, the Pune police began raids on such activists. It culminated in August 2018 with the dramatic, nationwide sweep of activists, lawyers, poets and academics.

The police were cheered on by television channels who had found another fertile term: “urban naxals”. Used in 2017 in an article by filmmaker Vivek Agnihotri in the rightwing magazine Swarajya and later picked up by television channels, the term raised the same fear of “invisible enemies” working within the state to foment insurgency. The armed naxal rebellion of the jungles, according to this formulation, had transmuted into a guerrilla warfare waged by “urban intellectuals”.

Pulwama patriots

It is in keeping with the determined anti-intellectualism of the Bharatiya Janata Party and Hindutva groups, which appears to think in simple declaratives. Any kind of complex reasoning is liberal sophistry and dissent is treason.

Soon, those who dared question government and army, increasingly appropriated by the BJP, were deemed to be anti-national. As tempers ran high in February after the Pulwama attack on a Central Reserve Police Force convoy that killed 40 security personnel and mobs across the country set upon Kashmiris, a Facebook group called “Clean India” took it upon themselves to weed out such anti-nationals. The defenders of the new faith would not stop at trolling anti-nationals. They would get them fired from jobs, suspended or expelled from universities, ideally arrested.

At least one person on the hitlist faced state action. An associate professor in Assam who saw a “sinister plot” in the Pulwama attack was booked by the Guwahati police for “public mischief” and Section 66 Act of the Information Technology Act, and for “public obscenity” and “criminal intimidation” by the Silchar police.

A pathology

The hunt for anti-nationals or the tukde, tukde gang eventually became a pathology that even found its way into the BJP’s election manifesto this year. From the aspirational chai wallah, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had turned into the “chowkidar” or watchman, who patrolled the borders of the nation state.

This vigilance was directed at external enemies, but also at “infiltrators” who had infected the body politic. Several state policies, actively pushed by the BJP government, are aimed at eliminating them – the National Register of Citizens, for instance, which is meant to be a roster of “genuine” Indian citizens, separating them from undocumented migrants. Union Home Minister Amit Shah famously referred to them as “termites”.

Soon after coming to power, the BJP’s national general secretary, Ram Madhav, laid out the party agenda for the next few years. This included the “decimation” of “pseudo secular/liberal cartels”. The “remnants of that cartel need to be discarded from the country’s academic, cultural and intellectual landscape”, he wrote.

Sounds like Adityanath has made a start.