In India, people are burning effigies of ‘anti-nationals’

On a bright, brisk St. Valentine’s Day, a small group of activists marched through the city of Amritsar in northwest India. Stopping at Gate Hall in the centre of the city, they burnt an effigy of Rahul Gandhi, vice-president of the country’s leading opposition party. His crime? The uniquely Indian offence of anti-nationalism.

“Gandhi should apologise to the people of this country for standing by those who are supporting terrorists and anti-national elements,” declared Avinash Shaila, district president of Yuva Morcha, a conservative youth group. “Government should set an example by punishing all persons involved in raising anti-national slogans,” agreed Somdutt Verma, regional president of the powerful nationalist student group Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, or ABVP.

Poor Gandhi has been immolated at least three separate times in a string of nationalist protests in India this year. What started as a bitter squabble over alleged government interference at Jawaharlal Nehru University, a hub of left-leaning activism, spilled out across the country after student protesters were accused of shouting pro-Pakistan slogans, leading to the arrest of the student union president on charges of sedition and criminal conspiracy. When Gandhi publicly supported the students, he was quickly vilified by members of India’s Hindu right-wing.

Before we become too concerned, it’s helpful to remember that effigy burning approaches something of a pastime in India – when it’s not opposition politicians, it’s university vice-chancellors, professors or human rights activists. Only last month, students at Jawaharlal Nehru University burnt an effigy of the prime minister styled as Ravana, the ten-headed demon king from the Indian epic The Ramayana.

Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to dismiss the recent surge of nationalist demonstrations and denunciations as simply more of the subcontinent’s pyromanic political activism. Gandhi, after all, was guilty only of endorsing the students’ right to protest; if such a supposedly uncontroversial stance can be readily tarred as treasonous, it’s right to question the political climate of a country. And what, for that matter, is an anti-national?

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The current obsession with nationalism in India emanates from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, and its prime minister Narendra Modi. Since their landslide election victory in 2014 the BJP, backed by strong support from right-wing Hindu organisations, has been determined to bolster the nationalist support of its 171 million voters by attempting to monopolise patriotic sentiment in the country. “Nationalism is our strength,” declared Modi earlier this year at the party’s national executive meeting. “It should be further spread.”

These are not empty words. This year alone, the party passed a resolution pronouncing nationalism an ‘article of faith’; made it mandatory for universities that fall under the Department of Higher Education to fly the national flag (to ‘evoke nationalistic sentiments’); suspended a Muslim legislator for refusing to say the national mantra Bharat Mata ki jai, or ‘victory to mother India’, and asked government-funded Urdu writers to guarantee in writing their work will not contain ‘anything against the policies of the government of India or the interest of the nation.’

At the same time, they have been sure to stoke nationalist fervour among their supporters, organising a week-long Tiranga Yatra, or ‘flag march,’ in August to celebrate the 70th anniversary of Indian independence. “We celebrate independence with pride and enthusiasm,” explained, or perhaps instructed, president of the BJP’s youth wing, Anurag Thakur. “Every Indian wants to hoist the nation’s flag and sustain its pride.”

The opposition party, the Indian National Congress, along with the more cynical pages of the Indian press, have suggested the BJP’s noisy patriotism this year is nothing but a diversion from an embarrassing local election defeat in Bihar last November, as well as the government’s continuing struggle to revive India’s economy.

But by blurring the lines between the party and the nation, the BJP is achieving something much more sinister: it is able to dodge criticism by accusing its critics of insulting not the government but the nation. “The BJP welcomes any criticism of the party, person, or government,” announced the party president Amit Shah at the party’s national executive meeting this March, “[but] patently anti-national activity cannot be justified on the plea of freedom of expression. It is plainly not acceptable.” The same warning was repeated the following day, when the Home Minister Rajnath Singh told reporters, “We can accept political dissent, but not anti-nationalism.”

Of course, the government has yet to define quite what anti-nationalism is. That would spoil the fun, as it would force them to obey clear guidelines on what criticism they can and cannot construe as somehow insulting to the nation. In the meantime, as Shah has repeatedly hinted at, the BJP now considers freedom of expression subservient to the nation, which they have been at pains to equate with their party. Some have been more explicit, with members of the ABVP openly calling for freedom of expression to be curtailed to avoid offending the nation.

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It would be a mistake to try and explain India’s political mood based only on national sentiment. Identity politics in the subcontinent is a baggy monster of caste, religion, ethnicity and nationalism, and the fact that the most vociferous demonstrations against anti-nationals have occurred in the highly sensitive state of Jammu and Kashmir, only miles from the Pakistan border, suggests forces besides nationalism are also at play.

However, the BJP’s gung-ho pursuit of patriotic support has allowed nationalism to dominate headlines this year. Things haven’t quite reached the bluntness of Emergency-era nationalism, when President Barooah proclaimed “India is Indira and Indira is India,” but when one of Modi’s own ministers can describe him as “God’s gift to India,” the rhetoric doesn’t seem that far off.

Not only do these tactics allow the BJP to endlessly criticise their Congress rivals as acting against the country’s best interests, but they have the effect of polarising and simplifying the entire political debate into an aggressive mudsling; or, as the BJP themselves put it in characteristic language, an ‘intensifying battle between nationalists and anti-nationalists.’

Such talk risks furthering the febrile conditions witnessed in India this year. Supporters who resort to burning effigies when their feelings are hurt are unlikely to be supporters who can engage in measured debate – which is precisely what India needs if it is to tackle pressing economic, social and environmental issues it faces as it assumes a role of global importance in the twenty-first century.

(Photo credit: Narendra Modi)

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