This Article is From Feb 18, 2016

Can India Really Not Cope With A Few Anti-National Slogans?

"Communist", anti-national, and "totally irresponsible": the words of a leading Indian academic addressing events at a top university. The professor declared "his disgust regarding the conduct and character of a considerable section of Indian students".

The latest inflammatory comment on the over-heated JNU row?

No. This was a professor of eastern religion and ethics, Sir Sarvepalli August 1937...and his ire was directed at Indian students at Oxford...where the nation they had been defaming was not India, but Britain.

Radhakrishnan went on to be India's President. Some of the nationalist students he castigated to their face (the quotes come from a police surveillance report - the state has always taken a keen interest in what students get up to) also went on to achieve huge distinction, in public service, politics and as writers and cultural figures.

Indeed the 'England-returned' students - sometimes disparaged for their airs and graces and perceived elitism - were key figures in the Indian nationalist movement in the decades either side of 1947. They often headed to England not more than lightly stirred by the national movement; as students in the heart of the Empire, their commitment to Indian nationalism, and often some brand of internationalism, became much more determined.

Take BPL Bedi (father of the actor Kabir Bedi): from an elite Punjabi family, who followed up his degree at Lahore with studies at Hertford College, Oxford, in the early 1930s, and later commented how he was sent "to the most conservative college in a conservative university, and somehow came back a nationalist and a communist".

This rummage through a past controversy about student politics points to how enduring is the concern about unruly student radicalism - and how much India is in the debt of those who challenged the establishment, and spoke out raucously against injustices, rather than meekly toeing the line.

The JNU controversy is about what many see as an intolerant and heavy-handed government response much more than the student slogans and sentiments which stirred the state into action.

Over the years, and around the world, governments have often reacted to student protests in a manner which seems wildly disproportionate, and that points to the most vulnerable spot of modern democracies: the illiberalism to which liberal democracies resort when perceived crucial national interests are at stake.

In the United States a generation and more ago, tens of thousands of students took to the streets in campuses across the country to demand an end to the Vietnam war and the recall of American troops from south-east Asia. At one such protest on May 4 1970, at Kent State University in Ohio, the National Guard opened fire killing four unarmed students. It prompted the angriest of political songs of that turbulent time, the Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young anthem "Ohio".

Looking back, the actions of those students helped build the groundswell of public opinion which eventually ended the war and tamed (for a while) America's military interventions overseas. That campus shooting made the issue more urgent.

In as much as history judges the past, the anti-Vietnam protests, a product of student radicalism, appear as a moment of valour - when by standing against the national consensus, young idealists challenged and changed the nation and redefined its values.

A nation which can't cope with a few anti-national slogans isn't much of a nation. But the added vim of the JNU incident is that it was about Kashmir - an issue of intense sensitivity, and one where there has been a remarkable consensus across the political spectrum (apart from in Kashmir, that is). 

From the government's point of view, you can see why it might want to close down campus rebelliousness on any aspect of the Kashmir issue.

Student politics is often shrill, ill-considered, intemperate - and sometimes plain daft. Student radicals are - and intend to be - a thorn in the side of the establishment. 

But sometimes they give voice to issues which merit a careful hearing and perhaps a recalibration of policy. And in any event, by clamping down on dissent, the nation diminishes itself - and hands a propaganda victory to its critics and opponents.

So, to paraphrase Pink Floyd: "Hey, you, leave them students alone!"

(Andrew Whitehead, a former BBC Delhi correspondent, is an honorary professor at the University of Nottingham and at Queen Mary, University of London.)

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