What's behind JNU V-C Jagadesh Kumar's call for army tank on campus? Need to intimidate 'unarmed' enemy who questions State

Let's get this straight. The executive head of one of India's best-known central universities wants to install an army tank inside the university's campus.

The outlandish demand, which was put forth even last year by a group of ex-servicemen led by Major General (retd) GD Bakshi, was raised this year during a tiranga (tricolour) march on 23 July at New Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) by Jagadesh Kumar, the university's vice-chancellor (V-C). The lavish flag march, organised on the eve of 'Kargil Day' (26 July), was peopled by prominent veterans, including Maj Gen Bakshi and more significantly, the Minister of State for External Affairs, VK Singh, another retired army general.

What do you make of this bizarre militarism of India's administrative and political elite?

A file image of JNU vice-chancellor Jagadesh Kumar. PTI

A file image of JNU vice-chancellor Jagadesh Kumar. PTI

The V-C says that the sight of a tank "will remind thousands of students about the great sacrifices and valour of our Indian Army". But, the exact thinking pathologies behind this demand are different and rather uncomplicated, much like the brand of nationalism that his hyper-nationalist coterie promotes: to put on display the state's offensive capabilities, and crush critical consciousness by introducing architectures of militarism in the country's intellectual spaces.

But, why a tank? Why not a simple martyrs' memorial? Because the tank is a double-edged sword.

Unlike the assault rifle, the artillery gun, or the grenade, it is a super-weapon in the conventional territorial battlefield that, besides being a tactical force multiplier against a land-based enemy, is also a time-tested instrument of psychological warfare. The sight of the rumbling machine, complete with its nasty gun-turret and heavy chain links, can invoke a visceral sense of fear amongst enemy ranks, especially if they are lightly armed or unarmed.

This specific attribute of the tank was demonstrated to the world during the historic Tiananmen Square protests in Beijing in 1989, when the Chinese army rolled in a convoy of Type 59s into the city's main public square to successfully force nonviolent, pro-democracy dissenters into submission.

That, precisely, is what the tank is supposed to do in JNU: intimidate the unarmed 'enemy', which in this case, is a bunch of young, socially-conscious, politically-aware Indians who dare to question the State and its various organs, army included.

The exhibitionist logic of placing a tank in an university space, which is generally viewed as an intellectual challenge to the State, is pretty clear: to send an unyielding message that the State is capable of liquidating by force those who challenge its authority. The V-C could have simply asked for a memorial to commemorate the Kargil martyrs. But, he asked for a piece of battlefield hardware whose only purpose is to kill and maim. How must one overlook the obvious semantics here, despite the overtly macabre subtext?

The other obvious motivation behind this drastic demand is to reclaim the university's public space from its traditional 'owners': the left-liberal body politic that identifies with the progressive, rather than nationalistic, line of thought. In this regard, the tank must be seen in a broader context of architectural overhaul. That the current administrators want to wholly replace the infrastructures of resistance characteristic of the JNU space (posters, placards, graffiti, and overnight dhabas) with an infrastructure of nationalism (more flags, marching bands, and a tank) is evident. The decision to put barricades around the common area outside the administration block, frequently used by student bodies to organise public meetings, is further testimony to this.

Thus, one must be careful of attaching any real meaning to the abstract rationale of 'patriotic inspiration' put forward by the V-C and his friends. It is nothing but a veil on the core logic of psychological subversion, a logic that is more strategic than metaphorical. The central idea is to recalibrate the entire discourse around JNU by systematically subduing intellectual opposition to the state that is now colloquially and deceitfully referred to as 'anti-nationalism'. This, the current administrators plan to accomplish through a mix of ways: institutional reforms, ghettoisation of the university space, and psychological intimidation.

The tank forms an essential part of this radical plan, aimed at evoking a very specific imagination of a battle-ready, sacrificial India. At the nucleus of it all, lays the larger agenda of wholesale ideological reformation of the millennial, university-going Indian crowd. To realise this, one does not have to look beyond what Maj Gen Bakshi said during the tiranga march: "See how we turned things around." Turn around, it sure is.

The V-C's demand for a tank is also reflective of a certain brand of nationalism that has taken centre-stage in the broader nationalistic public discourse in India, one that is based on militaristic violence rather than intellectual consolidation. His nationalism begins and ends at the barrel of the gun (or the tank's turret). But, then again, one cannot expect much openness of thought or critical reasoning from an administrator who misleadingly declares, "In no other country, is the army being questioned."

What Jagadesh Kumar and Co. expect from the university crowd is clear: to abandon the various questions, and embrace the single answer. What happens if students dismiss the answer?

Well, there's a tank standing right outside your college canteen.


Published Date: Jul 25, 2017 01:11 pm | Updated Date: Jul 25, 2017 01:11 pm


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