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Evolving aspirations

K S S Seshan, May 4, 2016 0:03 IST

CAMPUS NATIONALISM : The student agitation has to be seen from a perspective of their aspirations, their academic freedom and the dreams for an ideal

The current student unrest in several universities – as a result of clamping sedition charges on some scholars for their purported utterances on campus termed as ‘anti-national’ – warrants us to look back to the past when nationalism itself had several shades in its meaning and purpose.

The term ‘nationalism,’ when applied as a historical concept, admits no simple definition. That nationalism is “devotion to the interests of a certain country and belief that it is better and more important than other countries” may not hold good these days when the very concepts of nation, nationality and nationalism are undergoing a metamorphosis.

Forces of liberalisation and globalisation, in their trail in recent decades, have broken the narrow confines of conventional borders and prompted hitherto closeted countries to open up to new vistas of international understanding, thereby making the borders redundant. Inclusive growth patterns in the conventional confines of individual countries has given way to the modern concept of ‘universalism,’ affirming the faith in the dictum of maximum welfare to the largest number of people of the world.

Nationalism is a modern, Europe-centric concept and has come up as a corollary to the rise of nation states at the opening phase of the modern period in Europe, post the Renaissance and the Reformation movements. Countries like Spain, Portugal, France and England, were the first to became full-fledged nation states by the 16th century based on the idea that people with a common race, religion, language and contiguous land mass should form into a nation. The emergence of national states changed the medieval concept of polity and governance, giving way to the new national king with a national government and a national standing army.

Thanks to the efforts of Otto von Bismarck in Germany, and leaders like Mazzini, Garibaldi and Cavour in Italy, these countries too became nation states by the late 19th century. However, Nazism’s epic nationalism in later decades, though appealing to the common man, was wrought with political catastrophe. The Germans still suffer the humiliation of defeat in WW II. Therefore, it is not as though nationalism is a panacea for all political ills.
The numerous revolutions from the beginning of the modern period in Europe – the Dutch Declaration of the Rights of Man (1581), the Puritan Revolution in 17th century England, the American revolution, the French Revolution of 1789 – were great harbingers of nationalism. The rise of the romantic phase of nationalism with the feeling, “my country is always right; and it will never do wrong” was the result of this revolution that impacted many countries, including India during its freedom struggle.

Recent reports of protest and violence at several university campuses have brought back nationalism to the debating table. We now hear of punishments meted out by the university authorities with fines, expulsions and rustication of students due to certain activities perceived as ‘anti-national’.

At the centre of a political row over the sedition case filed against its Students’ Union President, JNU is said to be actively considering the suggestion made by ex-servicemen to showcase a battle tank on the university premises to “instill nationalism among its students.” They are also said to have suggested raising an Army Memorial and a “Wall of Fame” to commemorate the soldiers who lost their lives fighting for the country.

What is more amusing is that the Ministry of Human Resource Development is contemplating giving lessons in nationalism to the university students. One novel idea mooted is to make all Central universities fly the national flag on a high mast in their campuses to help understand the significance of nationalism.

It is the impatience in pursuance of an ideal nationalism that suits the aspirations of today’s youth that has been the cause of agitations in campuses, and not the lack of understanding of nationalism as the war veterans and the present political leadership seem to think.

Redefined nationalism

Nationalism for the present day youth, particularly in universities and colleges, appears to be not the same as it is understood by the earlier generations. For example, Parliament – the gift of independence – is a “temple of democracy” for the entire generation immediately after independence. However, 70 years since, when criminals, law-breakers and bank defaulters are crowding the same “temple,” the youth perceives it not more than an edifice with stone and concrete, with no emotional connect.

To them, the Constitution is more meaningful and Republic Day is more significant than Independence Day. Che Guevara, the Argentinian hero, inspires them more, while Martin Luther King, Mandela and Fidel Castro evoke their admiration. They are increasingly drawn to progressive literature of every genre and timeless classics in political philosophy. The Social Contract, The Spirit of the Laws and books that espouse the cause of ideal socio-political set up and internationalism are passionately read.

Even Rabindranath Tagore could not escape the accusations of being ‘anti-national’ in some of his utterances and writings. For the use of words “…the dispenser of justice” in his poem Jana Gana Mana, he was to defend himself as “that dispenser of justice can never be George V or George VI or any other George.” His critics have ignored Tagore’s oft repeated statement: “I am an Internationalist. I can live anywhere.”

The emerging campus nationalism and the student agitation in universities has to be seen from a larger perspective – of their aspirations, their unbridled academic freedom with which they are taught to work, their dreams for an ideal society and the impatience they have to quick fix the societal ills – which differentiates them from their earlier counterparts. It is this restlessness that has to be addressed before attempting to set up any emotive symbols to instill nationalism in campuses.

(The writer is retired professor of History, University of Hyderabad)

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