Photos: AFP
Photos: AFP

The developments over the past few weeks have surprised and offended the democratic sensibilities of many who have been reflecting and demanding a right to free speech and arguing that dissent is not sedition and that difference of opinion is not necessarily anti-national. However, BJP  on its part has not dithered from moving from one offensive step to the next. It began with an outrageous arrest of the JNU  student’s union president without any evidence, followed by his lynching in prison and the lynching of journalists and others at court apparently by lawyers, where the police in an act of brazen impunity simply looked the other way. Furthermore, then Delhi Police commissioner BS Bassi asked for evidence against the lawyers even when their video was all over the news. Along with this, Bassi came up with a statement saying that students needed to prove their innocence. As he kept flip-flopping around the issue, reports emerged that he was negotiating with the government in looking for a post-retirement job. This, in a sense, is the quintessential ‘Gujarat Model’ that stands for a certain kind of brazenness with which support is mobilised for the government in general and Modi in particular.

As a side show, BJP  MLA s joined the chorus to make the event even more muscular. To begin with, OP Sharma beat up a CPI activist, later alleging that it was in response to some anti-India slogans that the activist had raised. A Rajasthan MLA asked for Rahul Gandhi to be shot dead for participating in a public meeting in support of Kanhaiya Kumar, while another MLA asked D Raja of the CPI  to shoot his daughter for extending support to Umar Khalid. The official BJP spokesperson offered only a token disclaimer but never promised to act against either the lawyers or the MLAs.

Much of this was countered as violation of Constitutional morality. However, the BJP  and its ‘karyakartas’ did not budge but gave more blatant statements expressing their intent to lynch the JNU students. Some even demanded that TV reporters cry aloud ‘Bharat mata ki jai’ before they cared to answer their queries. Why does the BJP not dither even in the light of mounting criticism and disapproval of the media, academics, legal experts and other political parties? It is perhaps because it is clear as to who it is catering to in staging a spectacle of this nature. As long as it has the approval of that section of the society, BJP  believes it can afford to neglect, violate and even intimidate the rest.

Even a casual conversation with an auto driver, a street vendor, a shop keeper and neighbours in a south Delhi colony would allow one to understand that there is a section among us that does not only approve of but wishes to push and even perhaps participate in public acts of what they feel is patriotism. As one among the lawyers from the Patiala House Court hooliganism row revealed on a video that even the police said they would have joined the lynching had they not been in their uniforms. The approval is not merely among the subaltern classes, it is perhaps stronger among the upwardly mobile middle class, which has come to value security more than freedom. The ultranationalism of the BJP -RSS  kind seems to be a tipping point for the sociological distinctions between the elite and the subaltern. It is understandable why various sections of the society begin to lay premium on security rather than freedom when everyday life is constituted by violations of law not as an exception but as a norm.

The outrage we witnessed at court along with the violent declarations of BJP  MLAs, speaks of a malaise more rampant than we would want to believe. Only when it gets into media and we watch it from the comfort of our drawing rooms, does it look like an aberration. If only one looks closer, it is evident that public lynching — be it of women found drunk in Guwahati, Africans in Delhi and Bangalore or by Khap panchayats in Haryana — is more routinised and less organised. Even the more organised protests of the kind we witnessed against the 16 December rape in Delhi used the language of public lynching and castration and demands of death penalty for the accused. Along with these public spectacles that draw silent justification and consent for vigilante justice, there is the omnipresent language of the security state that justifies collateral damage, extrajudicial killings and exceptionalism. One needs to only watch one of these successful Bollywood cop movies where a supercop relishes an encounter or an act of delivering street ‘justice’.

Ajay Gudavarthy | Assistant Professor, Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University
Ajay Gudavarthy | Assistant Professor, Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University

The roots of the brazenness that BJP  pursues also exist in the way our public morality works. It is therefore not surprising that anti-national activities also should as a rule go with `naked dancing, alcoholism and use of condoms` in JNU, as one of the BJP MLAs remarked. In public morality, perhaps this makes sense. Sexual freedom, freedom to choose one`s life partner and freedom of speech and anti-national activities are not as far away as we perhaps imagine them to be. Nationalism and patriotism and symbols that accompany this language are not manufactured only by the BJP . One has to only pause and look back at the famous movement lead by Anna Hazare to realise that the symbolism was so common to what we are witnessing today — from slogans of `Bharat Mata ki Jai` and `Vande Mataram` to waving the national flag and celebrating celibacy and teetotalism as patriotic virtues.

What we witnessed with regard to JNU  is not the exclusive creation of the BJP  and the RSS . Instead, BJP  is only consolidating what is perhaps a more general sense of public morality in India. It is to this constituency that the BJP responds and therefore believes that it can afford to ignore and slight those in support of the agitating students in JNU. While stalling the expansion of the BJP – RSS combine is certainly the nodal point of the struggle against muscular power imbricated in our social life, by no means it is exclusive to them. It is an interrogation of the morality, language and symbolism that goes in the name of popular culture and populism that we would begin to make gains against spaces which are closing in on us. The present political dispensation has undoubtedly provided us with an opportunity, and we need to only look beyond the smokescreen of this manufactured spectacle.