In yet another move to establish themselves as the custodians of patriotism, the powers that be have decided to install a symbol of the nation in an institution that they believe is breeding sedition – Jawaharlal Nehru University.
The problem with this move is not simply the tank, which in itself sends all the wrong messages. Historically, tanks have symbolised brute power – they did in the world wars, they did in Tiananmen Square, they do in the Middle East, they will in JNU.
The larger problem is that we are increasingly asked to think of the “sacrifices and valour” of the army with no regard for context. The army is invoked in every debate ranging from demonetisation to the Aadhaar card to free speech. All this while, the government and its bhakts do not seem to realise that the reason the army must make these sacrifices and show such valour is that diplomacy has failed, the mechanisms of the state have failed, law and order has failed.
In modern times, invasion of another’s territory is no longer par for the course. Wars are caused by threats along the border, and these threats occur when we have failed to curtail aggression from our neighbours, when we have failed to build relationships with them and failed to ensure we respect each other’s sovereignty.
Soldiers would not have to be stationed on lonely hilltops in freezing climes if politicians did their jobs.
The armed forces would not have to sacrifice their lives in combating militants if politicians did not shut off channels of communication and build resentment among their fellow citizens.
Those who truly respect the army would not want to put the lives of the men who comprise its ranks in danger.
And so war mongering is not patriotism.
To understand what patriotism is, we need to examine what it is that makes us take pride in belonging to the nation.
Is it the fact that India was created by long resistance against the British? If it is, the spinning wheel would be a far better representation of that resistance than a tank.
Or was this grand celebration of the Kargil Vijay Diwas, which culminated in JNU Vice-Chancellor Jagadesh Kumar asking chief guests V K Singh and Dharmendra Pradhan to help the university procure a tank, held to emphasise that the enemy is Pakistan? To the saffron army, Pakistan extends to the entire Muslim population of India, a population they attribute to the Mughal invasion centuries ago. If it is the Mughal invasion they want to resist, Maharashtra is set to spend Rs 4000 crore, an amount which could arguably repair all the potholes in all its roads for the next decade, on a giant statue of the king Shivaji.
The installation of a tank, though, appears to attack not past enemies but the very idea of resistance.
Ominously, another guest Rajiv Malhotra – author of ‘Academic Hinduphobia’ and one of Wendy Doniger’s most vituperative critics – said at the event, “This is not only a victory of taking over Kargil in the external war, but also the victory of taking over JNU in the internal war.” Another guest went on to say the next ‘qilas’ to be captured were Jadavpur University and Hyderabad Central University.
In other words, “patriotism” according to the establishment is the strangulation of free speech.
The Army should be above criticism, even when it straps civilians to its jeeps as human shields to thwart stone throwers.
The government should be above criticism as long as it is only forcing civilians to stand in queues at ATMs and not carting them off to Siachen.
And the institutions in which students find spaces to question the legislature, executive, and judiciary are fortresses that must be conquered.
The tank is not a symbol of patriotism.
It is a symbol of the death of democracy, just as war is a symbol of the death of dialogue.
War is not an act of valour, but an act of despair by parties who have failed to resolve a problem by non-violent means.
Valour lies in standing up for one’s beliefs, and responding not with threats but with the possibility of negotiation to those who do not agree with those beliefs.
The tank is a threat. It is a machine that makes everything in its path fall in line.
And those who know their history would know that a tank has no place in a university.