By Shishir Tripathi
On 26 January, 199,2 then BJP president Murli Manohar Joshi unfurled the National Flag at Lal Chowk, in Srinagar. Joshi, along with a handful of other BJP leaders, was airlifted to Srinagar for the purpose and BJP was sure of reaping in huge political dividends by this symbolic act of ‘nationalism’. In his book Reverence, Resistance and Politics of Seeing The Indian National Flag, Sadan Jha, a professor of history, writes that decision of hoisting the flag at the Lal Chowk was part of the ‘Save Kashmir’ campaign and as a follow-up, similar functions were to be organised all over the country.
When on Thursday vice-chancellors (VCs) of 42 Central universities met Union Human Resource Development (HRD) Minister Smriti Irani, they proposed to fly the National Flag on their campuses. The proposal — although well-received by the HRD minister — came with a caveat.
Irani categorically told the VCs that whether or not they fly the National Flag in their campuses, they should ensure that while the free opinion is promoted, it ‘should be within legal parameters’.
The gathered VCs, who were all eager to please their political boss, however, resolved to hoist the national flag “prominently and proudly” in their respective campuses. The decision was made with the purpose of “instilling nationalism and pride” among students in the wake of the unending row at the JNU campus following the arrest of its student union president Kanhaiya Kumar on sedition charges.
While the VCs must have earned their entry in the good books of the HRD minister, by proposing this ‘nationalist’ way of instilling discipline and nationalism among students, what they failed to realise is that the university campus is no Lal Chowk, where the hoisting of the Tricolour will inflate our jingoist egos.
In many of these campuses — where the Tricolour will fly — live students, who are mature, free thinking and rational and can see beyond the 'imagined' meanings to which national symbols are usually attributed. They understand the politics and rhetoric behind marking them as symbols of patriotism and unity.
If reports are to be believed, JNU — that is grappling with the student unrest — will be the first institution in which the flag will be unfurled. Anyone who has spent some time in JNU ove the past few days can clearly feel a strong sense of resentment against the State and government, even among the most neutral of students. In the backdrop of such unrest in the university, the urgency of imposing such a diktat will only further inflame passions. It will be counterproductive in the current situation when students are up in arms against the State and are questioning the very idea of the ‘nationalism and the nation-state’.
Contesting the settled notions of nationalism and to counter the superficial understanding of the terms "nation" and "nationalism", professors at JNU are holding a series of public lectures from 17 to 24 February.
The cheering and the thunderous applause that followed the first lecture, delivered by Professor Gopal Guru, on Wednesday was testimony to the fact that students are contesting the most established determinants of nationalism.
Consider this: "If you really want to sustain and harness this essence of a nation which is normative, the nation cannot do it on its own. Nation is an abstract category. Nation cannot be defined in terms of borders alone and the physical character of nation and that is what people do — that is the dominant definition they pick up, because that is easy for them, to construct the other."
The massive crowd that had gathered at the administrative block for the lecture applauded the professor’s words with deafening applause.
When the students are in the mood to reject the most settled parameters of nationalism, the expectation that hoisting the National Flag can make students conform to the ideas that the State wants to impose upon them is a huge mistake. Such moves will only ignite more passions. As one of the research scholars in JNU said, “They are trying to provoke students. The kind of resentment students are harbouring currently against the government, it should not come as a surprise if someone desecrates ‘this symbol of national pride’. And that will only worsen conditions here”.
What is ironical here is that it was the academic guardians of the universities — the vice-chancellors and not their political masters, are the one suffering from willful myopia, and resorting to such populist means to ‘discipline’ students. Initiating a debate and dialogue with the students; making it look like a deliberative process, which is the hallmark of academic life could have been a much better way to get the students on board.
But then many among them are UPA appointees and have to first guard their chairs; students’ interest can be left over for another day. What they forget is that university campuses are not Lal Chowk where they can flag their jingoism and be applauded, and that universities are not Kashmir that needs to be retrieved and ‘saved’.