UGC's directive on celebrating 'Surgical Strike Day' sets dangerous precedent for assault on academic independence
It seems likely that the operation that has been entrusted to the UGC is about reminding the young that the current regime is muscular and no-nonsense.
Under instruction from the central government, the University Grants Commission (UGC) has told 900-odd universities and 38,000-odd colleges that they will have to observe a ‘Surgical Strike Day’ on 29 September. According to reports, as of now, West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee has made it clear that her state will not follow this order.
Two years after the government announced that it had mounted cross-border ‘surgical strikes’ against terrorist targets in Pakistan, the UGC has issued an order detailing the manner in which the day should or could be observed. It says that students should write letters or cards in physical or digital format expressing their support for the armed forces. These letters will then be forwarded to the relevant authorities in the armed forces and be followed by meetings between army officers and students on or off campus.
The orders also make provisions for educational institutions inviting ex-servicemen, who would speak to students about the sacrifices made by armed forces personnel who defend the country. The National Cadet Corps will organise these meetings.
The orders have, unsurprisingly, attracted criticism, which have, however, been deflected by the secretary of the UGC with the blasé comment that differences of opinion are possible, but the orders have been issued in accordance with a government directive.
It’s difficult to figure out at first blush what to make of these bizarre instructions. It appears that some people have read into them an attempt to inculcate in the young a nationalist spirit. Some have been supportive of the initiative and some critical. The latter believe that pride in one’s nation cannot, or should not, be fostered by such hothouse stratagems. It is possible that those who favour the move believe that an awareness of the role the armed forces play in securing the nation-state is a healthy way of engaging students in the duties of citizenship.
There is another way of reading these instructions that has nothing to do with the nationalist or nation-building enterprise. Before getting to that, a couple of interlinked distinctions need to be made. First, there is a difference between the nation and the nation-state. Loosely speaking, the first is interchangeable with the country, while the second has built into it the massive institutional apparatus of the state, including in its ambit the political, administrative and judicial systems and the armed forces.
Pride in or love for the nation and the people who constitute it is in the arena of the emotive and is usually called patriotism. One would suppose that there is little need to make a special effort or initiate a programme to foster it. Pride in the nation-state is a form of ideology that has to be fostered at various levels and in various ways – though, patently, not through the kind of farcical programmes represented by a ‘Surgical Strike Day’.
If one were to presume that this observance is indeed about fostering in the students some kind of pride in ‘India’, it would obviously be for India, the nation-state rather than India, the country and its people. The question is: Is it necessary for the state to take on the responsibility of, in a sense, indoctrinating citizens? In other words, is there anything wrong in a citizen not feeling particularly nationalistic in the sense of feeling proud of the institutional complex that is built into the nation-state?
Liberals would answer the first question in the negative and the second in the affirmative – they could point out that even the ‘fundamental duties’ laid out in the Constitution do not enjoin upon citizens to be nationalistic. The pragmatic would point out that, as a matter of fact, most citizens feel disgust for rather than pride in a ‘system’ that is perceived to be corrupt, insensitive and chronically on the brink of terminal collapse. The ideologically committed would like to fashion all citizens in their own image. A lot of people would, however, point out that patriotism and nationalism are almost always in mutual conflict: in other words, the more one loves the country and its people, the more one despises the institutions that despoil them.
However, the ‘Surgical Strike Day’ project probably has nothing to do with either the ideology of nationalism or the emotion of patriotism. Its far more circumscribed agenda is the celebration of the regime that ordered the surgical strikes. In this context, one may recall that there were claims, neither fully substantiated or convincingly rebutted, that the strikes were of a routine character and similar actions had been undertaken many times in the past. It was just that the regime of the day came up with the idea of packaging them as an out-of-the-box solution to cross-border terrorism. If, indeed, it was such a solution, one must, for the record, note that it was a dismal failure, rather like the other surgical strike launched by the current regime – the one also known as ‘demonetisation’.
To return to the main argument, it seems circumstantially very likely that the operation that has been entrusted to the UGC is about reminding the young that the current regime is muscular and no-nonsense, able and willing to confront its enemies head-on. it is all about conveying to young people, many of whom will be voting for the first time in a Lok Sabha elections for the first time in 2019, that the country’s security is safe in the hands of the existing dispensation in New Delhi.
In other words, ‘Surgical Strike Day’ is itself an out-of-the-box electoral gimmick, which smacks unmistakably of the somewhat wacky. But it would be a mistake to consider it as a harmlessly eccentric ploy. It sets a dangerous precedent for other regimes to invade the state educational sector in ideologically motivated ways, which constitutes a wholly unacceptable and egregious assault on academic freedom and independence.
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