In 2008, demonstrators defying curfew in Jammu and Samba held aloft the national flag. It was an effective strategy – for a few minutes at least. The army had been called to prevent their demonstrations, and a few of the soldiers balked for a moment when they saw the flag. As the soldiers glanced at each other, the demonstrators lustily shouted the slogan `Indian Army zindabad.’
The soldiers soon regained focus, and the procession was not allowed to move forward. Thus did the army manage the extremely difficult task of maintaining the 'sanctity of curfew’ (a term those demonstrators would like now that they are in power).
RSS activists continue to use the flag and nationalist slogans. Instead of defying curfew, they now use them to re-frame issues about fundamental rights – such as free speech, the right to question, and to dissent – as `anti-national.’
Those 2008 demonstrators thought of themselves as nationalists taking on a dangerously non-nationalist regime. They opposed what they called the 'pseudo-secularist appeasement’ of the UPA government (one of their ideologues told me India was 'a rabidly anti-Hindu state’). The state was under Governor’s rule.
Those demonstrations were minutely managed by the RSS. They lasted several months and effectively deployed symbols of the Indian state such as the national flag. These were used along with religious symbols – tridents, saffron flags and scarves, slogans such as 'Bum Bum Bhole', bhajans, aartis, prabhat pheris, and sometimes extremely hate-filled speeches against Muslims.
They were protesting the cancellation of a government order transferring land to the Sri Amarnath Shrine Board – following heated agitations against the land transfer in the Kashmir Valley. Like JNU 'leftists’ over the past few days, those who opposed the land transfer that year were clubbed with Muslims and Kashmiris in general. As a bunch, they were sometimes described as desh-drohi (anti-national).
It mattered little that some of those who opposed the land transfer did so on environmental grounds. It mattered even less that, while cancelling the land transfer, the state government undertook to directly provide all facilities for Amarnath yatris.
The high-profile, high-cost attempts by RSS activists (BJP president Murli Manohar Joshi in 1992 and then some of today’s cabinet ministers in 2011) to hoist the national flag at Lal Chowk in Srinagar were ineffective at best, divisive at worst (a makeshift flagpole gave way in 2011).
The current government’s new diktat that central universities must fly a huge national flag will present a new target to boisterous Kashmiri youth. Protecting it might become another high-cost, internationally-watched task. Any attack on it could become a pretext to close the university. There would certainly be calls to shut down the place.
Now that the anti-JNU agitators, in their processions, and the Human Resources Development Minister, in her meeting with vice-chancellors, have deployed the national flag, it is worth looking back at the impact of the nationalist versus anti-national discourse of 2008.
Those agitations deeply divided the people of the state. The rift between the Jammu province and the Kashmir Valley continues to widen – over such issues as beef eating and the status of the state flag.
Worse, those agitations re-created a divide between Muslims and Hindus of the Jammu province. Until then, Muslims of the area had by and large considered themselves an integral part of the larger community. Except for Kashmiri-speaking Muslims of the Chenab basin, the area’s Muslims by and large did not identify with the Kashmir Valley any more than Jammu’s Hindus did. In fact, many Jammu Muslims used to resent Valley Muslims for affecting their social image adversely.
The 2008 demonstrations caused terror in the minds of many Muslims in the Jammu province. It revived memories of the genocides of 1947. Those wounds had healed in the worst-affected Jammu-Ranbirsinghpora area in the six decades after Partition. There was peace in Bhaderwah and Poonch too, albeit occasionally tenuous.
To be sure, Udhampur was often tense and Rajouri town would occasionally burst into communal rioting. But since 2008, many Muslims right across the Jammu province feel hurt and betrayed. Some of their neighbours treat them with greater suspicion.
On the narrow political plane, the RSS benefitted tremendously. Early in 2008, before those agitations, the BJP’s own leaders had expected to draw a blank in the assembly elections towards the end of that year. They did not expect to win a single seat. After the polarisation which those agitations caused, they won 11 seats. In 2014, the Modi wave took the figure up to 25.
In future election campaigns across the country, the BJP will surely try and spin the events in and around JNU, by re-framing the issues at JNU and (following Rohit Vemula’s suicide) at Hyderabad Central University as struggles between nationalists and anti-national `leftist’ deviants. In the process, the RSS might divide society across the country.
This is bad not only for national integration but also for national security.