Monday, 30th October 2017

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The wicked uncle again

Rajnath Singh versus Kanhaiya Kumar

By Mukul Kesavan
  • Published 15.02.16

The response of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party government to slogans shouted by a group of leftist Jawaharlal Nehru University students celebrating Afzal Guru and Pakistan and India's imminent disintegration was led by Rajnath Singh. Acting on complaints by the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad and a BJP member of parliament, Maheish Girri, the home minister warned that "[i]f anyone raises anti-India slogans and tries to raise question on nation's unity and integrity, they will not be spared. Stringent action must be taken against those who raised anti-India slogans in JNU". He ordered Delhi's police commissioner, B.S. Bassi, to intervene. Bassi's men entered the campus, searched hostel rooms, instructed the university authorities to install video cameras on campus and arrested the president of the JNU students union, Kanhaiya Kumar. He was charged with sedition, a crime punishable by life imprisonment.

This near-lunatic overreaction to student recklessness is rooted in a paranoid style of nationalism that needs to be understood.

In the political lexicon of the Right, more dangerous than the enemies at India's borders is the enemy within. In the rudimentary shorthand of the sangh parivar, these Trojan horses are generically described as anti-national or anti-India. Political wickedness in the sanghi tradition is hyphenated: anti-national, pseudo-secular. The mechanical use of a qualifying prefix - anti, pseudo - to make political virtue into political vice has something to do with the poverty of Hindutva's vocabulary.

The Congress invented a political lexicon through political struggle: swadeshi, ahimsa, satyagraha emerge from a long history of nationalist mobilization. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and its political spawn sat out anti-colonial nationalism and were unable to draw openly upon the political terminology of the European Right because of the subsequent career of fascism. As a result the sangh parivar was forced to refashion, for its own political ends, the available vocabulary of republican liberalism.

Deen Dayal Upadhyaya's 'Integral Humanism' (the BJP's official ideology) is a good example of this: an under-powered attempt to assimilate Gandhi to Hindutva. Notice the attempt to appropriate the vaguely liberal term 'humanism' to a doctrine which, to the extent that it means anything at all, is deeply hostile to liberalism's principal tenet, individualism. But for the most part the sangh parivar's ideological vocabulary consists of brutish inversions of terms once owned by the anti-colonial Congress. L.K. Advani's neologism, 'pseudo-secular', is a deft way of sneering at inclusiveness. Similarly, 'national' for the BJP has no meaning outside 'Hindu': it's merely a way of identifying the enemy who is, by definition, 'anti-national'.

The Right has always used patriotism to bludgeon its opponents. In 1933, in another university, in another time, after the infamous Oxford Union debate where the motion, "This House will in no circumstances fight for its King and Country", was carried by a large majority, the Daily Express described the motion's supporters as "woozy-minded Communists" and "sexual indeterminates".

Winston Churchill, not to be outdone, called it an "abject, squalid, shameless avowal". He compared England's young degenerates unfavourably with their German and Italian counterparts. "I think of Germany, with its splendid clear-eyed youths marching forward on all the roads of the Reich singing their ancient songs, demanding to be conscripted into an army; eagerly seeking the most terrible weapons of war; burning to suffer and die for their fatherland. I think of Italy, with her ardent Fascisti, her renowned Chief, and stern sense of national duty."

Churchill's paean to fascist youth is ironic in the light of subsequent events and it has lessons for us. Rajnath Singh, who joined the RSS at the age of 13 and served as the president of the BJP's youth wing, doubtless prefers the well-drilled, khaki-uniformed young of the sangh's shakhas to JNU's treacherous, anti-national rabble, but we should ask ourselves whether nations are better served by Churchill's "clear-eyed" Reich-worshipping youth or by free-thinking students given to political exhibitionism and excess? The second world war was won by young men fighting fascism, fighting the grotesque nationalist cult of the Fatherland. When politicians ask us to turn on students in the name of the motherland, of Bharat Mata, we should think about the history of the nationalist shrine at which they are asking us to worship.

A day before he was arrested, Kanhaiya Kumar, the JNU students union's president, made a speech in the populist tradition of the Left in which he scorned the notion of taking lessons in patriotism from the RSS. He invoked a generous patriotism grounded in the Constitution, based on the teachings of Ambedkar and committed to the defence of India's real majority, the poor.

Kanhaiya is a PhD student. His home is Begusarai, in Bihar. His father is a partly paralyzed peasant, his mother is an anganwadi worker who earns Rs 4,000 a month. This is the poor, politically engaged young man that Rajnath Singh and Smriti Irani want us believe is India's Public Enemy No 1. As I write, the deputy commissioner of police (South) has recommended that his case be handed over to the Delhi Police's Anti-Terrorism Squad. An elected student leader has been charged with sedition and might be given over to the tender mercies of a notorious ATS because sloganeering students outraged nationalist sensibilities? Have we all gone mad?

What we are seeing in JNU and what we saw in the University of Hyderabad, is a textbook demonstration of the sangh parivar working as a joint family. The ABVP, looking for campus turf, complains to a BJP patron (in this case Maheish Girri, an MP) who has a word with the home minister or human resource development minister, who in turn visits retribution on the ABVP's rivals. In Hyderabad, this scheme was thwarted by Rohith Vemula's tragic suicide; this happy family has now gone fishing again, looking this time for live catch.

Kanhaiya, as Rajnath Singh must know, is Krishna's name. Recently, while teaching a course on the history of Bombay cinema, I showed my students a fragment of Shri Krishna Janma, an early film by Dadasaheb Phalke. There's a passage in it where Krishna's foster mother, while rocking him in his cradle, has a vision of the boy Krishna playing the flute. Abruptly, in the manner of silent films, the scene changes to a shot of Krishna's wicked uncle, fearful and restless. There's a moment when his head rises unbidden off his shoulders into the air and his disembodied face is deranged by panic. The head settles back into place but there's no peace for the villain because he is surrounded by visions of Krishna. He captures Krishna and tries to have him trampled by elephants. When the elephant refuses to oblige, he tries to have his nephew boiled in oil. That doesn't work either.

The BJP's response to radical student activism, whether it is Rohith Vemula in Hyderabad or Kanhaiya Kumar in JNU, is uncannily like the fearful, vengeful reaction of Krishna's wicked uncle. The Krishna story shows us two ways of dealing with unbiddable youth: the love and nurture supplied by his foster mother on the one hand and the fearsome, but ultimately futile, use of power by his uncle on the other.

In our story, Kanhaiya's mother, Meena Devi, who worked her fingers to the bone to give her son an education that she and her husband didn't have, is obviously Yashoda. The question we should all ask is why are so many in the BJP auditioning for the role of Kansa?