Armies and the Man

The army is increasingly coopted into a BJP-led bait and switch. The ploy is simple, and effective: tack on the army to any and all rants about JNU, nationalism and related tropes; contrast the “free-loading”, slogan-shouting students with the army that is fighting terrorism on a daily basis on our borders and demand that you take sides: students, or army? A recent Rajesh Sinha piece in The Wire examined this tactic in some depth.

These themes are also broadcast far and wide on social media and, more significantly, on WhatsApp, thereby using the deep penetration of the mobile phone network in the country to reach out to a large number of citizens. Retired persons, housewives, salesmen, random persons on the street, and ex-servicemen, all chime in to start prescribing what should be taught in political science, history and sociology. These ideas are circulated all over simply by recipients unthinkingly, irresponsibly forwarding such messages to everyone possible. All out of a sense of duty for the nation, especially since it does not take more effort than touching a button.

So what’s wrong with that? Nothing, except that there is a logical third choice that is not presented in this version of the Tebbit Test: Students and army. (And, while you think about it, women. And dalits. And all the rest of us.)

Abhinandan Sekri pointed to that elemental point — that society is at its best when the army, whose credo is unquestioned obedience, and civil society, which has the right to question and dissent, work in tandem.

That is the way it must be. While the military’s duty is to obey every command unquestioningly and to engage in any battle or deployment unquestioningly on the orders of the civilian government, it is the duty of civilians like us to ask those questions so that some of the bravest and most disciplined men of our country are not engaged in battles unworthy of their sacrifice. Their patriotism is to obey orders without question. Our patriotism is to question those orders.

It is entirely consistent to respect the armed forces and their contribution while opposing the battle they are engaged in.

Sekri is the son of an army officer. A few days earlier, the daughter of another officer had a pithy message for cynical politicians and their comrades in arms in the media:

“Don’t drag the army into your dirty game”

And now Admiral Ramdas, a veteran with 45 years of service who joined the army while in his mid-teens, shows how it is done. He went to JNU, that beer-swigging, beef-eating hotbed of anti-national sentiment, and in a beautifully articulated lecture, discussed concepts of patriotism and nationalism.

In some ways, it is a good thing that the death of Vemula, the arrest of Kumar and the witch-hunt against Umar Khalid, have actually led to a public debate about the definition of national and anti-national, as also of the deeper and more intractable issues around caste, religion and discrimination in our society. The linked question regarding who, if anyone, has the right to decide on my nationalism or lack of it, is equally vexed and needs a longer, more mature discussion. To the best of my knowledge, this has not been done since Independence. The existing laws and practice on this are largely inherited from the colonial period and were never addressed in a contemporary framework. This is critical for a mature democracy. Jingoism, waving the national flag, and shouting slogans, are not equivalent to a certification of patriotism. Upping the ante and making allegations of seditious behaviour and terrorist ties may not pass judicial scrutiny. Many have publicly disagreed with the sloganeering and forms of protest, but none of this is new or radical. Certainly it is ludicrous to think that a few students can threaten the unity of the country, as is sought to be established by some media houses and their invisible paymasters.

The above is from a written note; I’ll upload his speech at the university as soon as it becomes available online. In passing, and since it is the weekend,

In passing, and since it is the weekend, watch these lectures –and consider this: What you see in these videos are professors engaging with students, at an intelligent, intellectual level, on the questions that concern them, and students by the hundred, in their own time and under no academic compulsion, listening to the lectures in disciplined silence and engaging with their professors through articulate follow up questions. You see this and you wish that the rest of us, in a society roiled by dog-whistle politics, had someplace similar to go where we could listen, talk, argue, discuss, debate, learn. And grow.)

You see this and you wish that the rest of us, in a society roiled by dog-whistle politics, had someplace similar to go where we could listen, talk, argue, discuss, debate, learn. And grow.

PS: Here you go — Admiral Ramdas’s speech at JNU from yesterday evening:

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