New Delhi: Freedom: How free is the country under Narendra Modi? That this question is being posed at all suggests there are problems. The Indian Constitution empowers a class of freedoms joined with a variety of minimal and reasonable restrictions. It could be very troubling of course to have a set of rather overgrown students who should be out of university pursuing honest careers that employ these freedoms to raise slogans threatening to disintegrate the country. The country will not disintegrate because a bunch of pampered and rather mediocre “scholars” raise the demand. It reflects on their poverty of ideas and it shines a rather dismal light on their teachers. Other than revolutionary foot soldiers lost in time and crackpots, who would want to dismantle Indian democracy, the single greatest gift of independence?

Democracy, however, has a painless way of dealing with deluded students. Most of these delusions in the past were admirably handled at the level of universities. Vice-chancellors were wise and deep men and women. Teachers were committed. And the government or state lay at a very great distance and was led by statesmen who had been students once and knew the red lines. The trouble commenced with the politicization of campuses by the parties of the Left and Right. There was a lag between politicization of teachers and students with the first preceding the second. The centrist parties which generally neglected student politics were compelled to join the race. Matters did not reach levels to produce serious apprehension until the political “infection” spread to large bodies of students. In time, the student community became an ugly mirror image of national politics with caste, sectarian and hyper-national viruses of one saturating the other.

If the balance tilted one way till the advent of the Narendra Modi government, it has swung to the other extreme in the past three years of his rule. Any criticism of the Prime Minister, his government or his policies swiftly attracts trolls and charges of sedition and treason. If the earlier slogan was “desh ka tukda, tukda kar denge”, this has now been replaced with a sullen silence and deceptive lull. It is a swing of extremes which is never wholesome and indeed quite dangerous. The beauteous attraction of democracy is that it permits steam to escape. There is no danger of a bursting pressure cooker. However, pressure is slowly accreting in numerous university airtight chambers. In a moment of weakness, they could explode. The Narendra Modi government is blind to this danger.

To counter the previous tendencies considered “anti-national”, the government has decided to fly the national flag from high masts in all Central universities and is simultaneously embarked on the construction of memorial walls for Param Vir Chakra heroes. Flying the flag is not per se contentious. If the flag is made of handsome and quality material that can withstand high velocity winds and the flagpole towers over vicinal structures, it doubtless presents a wondrous sight. The tall flags in Chanakya Puri and Connaught Place are outstanding examples of this trend. But the flag cannot become the instrument to divide citizens of this country. The BJP and the BJP government at the Centre cannot proclaim sole proprietary rights over the flag and imply that it does not belong to others. This is the equivalent of the Deewar dialogue, “Mere paas maa hai.” Why should essentially a low-rent and vacuous ideological clash draw the flag in contest? The national flag is sacred and oughtn’t to become the subject of debate.

And the wall of heroes in campuses is also completely over-the-top. There is not a single Indian who is not moved by the extraordinary valour and selflessness of those who won the Param Vir Chakra, now bestowed only posthumously. Excepting the contemporaneous Amar Jawan Jyoti in the foreground, India Gate predominantly commemorates Indian soldiers who fell in the First World War and in the Third Anglo-Afghan War. Neither of the two wars was accurately speaking India’s wars since India was a British colony at the time. Nevertheless, reading the names inscribed on the victory arch and tracing them with fingers unfailingly leaves you with a thickness in the throat. It was much the same experience for this writer at the black granite Vietnam War memorial in Washington, respectfully and adoringly graced by fresh flowers placed by visiting families of martyred soldiers. It is imperative that India has a world class war memorial. We owe a vast debt of gratitude to our soldiers who perished to uphold the independence of this great country. But war heroes cannot be reduced to political playthings. There are a million ways to guide students to the correct path so that they grow up to be decent and worthy citizens who cherish the multiple freedoms of our democracy. But universities are not the place to build war memorials. There is a place of indubitable sanctity in a democracy for war memorials and a separate and distinct region as well to found and nurture universities to intellectual greatness. It is misguided and potentially perilous to combine the two discrete themes of nation-building.

To be continued....

Read “Rating the PM - 1”, “2” and “3” here , here.and here.