How Do I Define My Nationalism?

Recently I watched a video of a 2016 lecture by Professor Prabhat Patnaik from Jawaharlal Nehru University. Patnaik, known for his leftist political opinions as well as his scholarly work in economics, addressed nationalism in this lecture, held at a time when the nation was up in arms over Kanhaiya Kumar and JNU’s student politics. Patnaik made the point that national development has shifted to a capitalist approach. This is something worth thinking about in our current scenario.

Concluding the lecture, Patnaik said:

Consider first an obvious point, here is a government that has sought to browbeat the students at the Pune Film Institute, the Hyderabad Central University, JNU and the Department of Fine Arts of the MS University of Baroda (MSU). These are among the finest institutions in India and their destruction only makes the country parasitical on institutions located in metropolitan countries. In short, in the name of ‘nationalism,’ we are, paradoxically, making our nation parasitical on advanced nations. But this inevitably follows the promotion of an aggrandising nationalism in a Third World country that prioritises repression over tolerance.

The pride I felt at hearing my university mentioned in his speech had slowly melted away by the end of Patnaik’s sentence. I was disheartened, but acknowledged the truth in what was being said. It’s no secret that the BJP has changed the culture of MSU since it’s been in power in Gujarat.

For instance, all of MSU’s 15 functioning messes and over 20 canteens now only serve vegetarian options. Finding eggs in a canteen is a rarity. And this is just a small example.

However, Patnaik was actually referring to new developments in a decade-old case concerning the university. In 2007, a final-year postgraduate student, Srilamanthula Chandramohan sparked an ‘obscenity row‘ with some of his paintings. We feel the ramifications of this event even today.

The paintings in question included nude portraits of Jesus and Durga, which irked the church as well as the BJP. It spread from a university-level issue to a wider concern, forcing the administration to intervene.

Students protesting and covering the Faculty of Fine Arts in black tarpaulin sheets, Vadodara, 25 June 2007. Image courtesy: Students of the Faculty of Fine Arts. Source: Akansha Rastogi and B.V. Suresh

Students and professors alike came out in support of Chandramohan, but the university’s administration, backed by the BJP, did not. In fact, the faculty dean who refused to act against the protesters was sacked. The university panel which had convened to judge the validity of the complaints against Chandramohan’s paintings, decided against him (and so, against artistic license). Chandramohan, despite being the topper of his batch, was denied his degree.

Having waited for his degree and a response from MSU for over a decade, the artist seemed to break. In Feburary 2018, he entered the vice chancellor’s office and set it on fire, leading to his arrest. As a result of our prejudiced system, a once vibrant artist was now facing serious criminal charges. This is a prime example of moral policing at our universities. We’re never asked to seek inspiration from Ajanta-Ellora, but instead told to criminalise independent points of view.

As Patnaik said in 2016, we live in very difficult times, where a supposedly collective perception of nationalism has been branded the ‘correct’ one and is being sold everywhere in the country. Today’s nationalism prioritises majoritarianism instead of the freedom of its people. Gandhi’s vision of nationalism is being replaced with Hitler’s vision of Nazism, and as a secular spectator, this is disheartening at best. We are the ones indirectly participating in the mass disruption of our constitutional principles.

Hard times, Oliver Twist!

Ujjawal Krishnam is an undergraduate research scholar in the department of physics, at the Maharaja Sayajirao University Of Baroda.