On July 23, 2017 the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) Vice Chancellor M Jagadesh Kumar requested the installation of an army tank in the campus to “instill nationalism” in the students of JNU. The statement was made during Tiranga March held on Kargil Diwas. Major General (retd) GD Bakshi declared this whole event as a “capture” of the JNU campus, and other campuses like Jadavpur University and Hyderabad Central University are to fall in line of this conquest.
Students saw this as a clearly misguided attempt to suppress their voices, and complained that the newly appointed VC was not allowing any space for dissent. These statements made by the VC and Major Bakshi have implications not only on JNU, but on several other University campuses in the country. In this essay I want to show that the whole question of ‘respect for the army’ or the ‘heroism of soldiers fighting at the borders’ doesn’t have to do much about the soldiers themselves, but with the propagation and demand of unquestionable obedience to the system that supports this hyper-masculine narrative of warfare.
Fundamental distinctions between a battlefield, where an army tank actually belongs, and a University ground are not difficult to find. In the battlefield, the other side is an enemy to be exterminated with no grounds of negotiation, whereas the University campus is to foster a culture of debate and the polarities, where conclusions of right/wrong, friend/enemy, good/bad, etc. are not necessary.
More importantly, the Army is an institution that follows a chain of orders from the government, and it isn’t allowed to think on its own in some of the most significant capacities. This chain of order is what makes a country a democracy rather than a state governed by military. Military rule is always about imposition of a single ideology, most often cloaked by the obedience and war-seeking brand of Nationalism.
The idea behind military dictatorship is simple – exterminate what doesn’t fit in with the views espoused by the (military) government. However, in a democracy, the government works for the people by attempting to hear their multiple and diverse voices. A university as a site of premier education represents and acts a bridge to this very form of governance based on this voicing out of opinions that may be disagreeable to some or most people without any threat.
Fundamental distinctions between a battlefield, where an Army tank belongs, and a University campus are not difficult to find.
Before getting on to the symbolism of an army tank in the campus and its multiple repercussions, let us look at one more set of images that is circulated widely in the media to “remind the people of Army’s sacrifices” – funeral processions of Army personnel. While an Army tank indicates victory and successful conquest, the funeral procession speaks of loss and sacrifice. Both of them, however, are used to “remind” people of the sacrifice that Army men make. Thereby, the reasoning that follows is what Army does and is shouldn’t be questioned and then one’s opinion in context to the defence forces is conflated with patriotism. Therefore, disagreeing with the Army is seen synonymous to ‘insulting’ the Army and being “anti-national” by many news outlets today.
However, in a democratic nation like ours, military forces are always subordinate to the government. This is essential for the democratic workings of the country, as a citizen has the right to criticize government and government policies without rendering the criticism as a ‘grave insult’ or ’seditious’. This applies to every institution controlled and run by government, with the Army being no exception. Hence, it is always healthy and in the spirit of democracy to question and doubt the government in power and by extension – the Army.
The idea of installing a military weapon as a reminder of patriotism in University spaces doesn’t speak of the professed ‘sacrifice of soldiers at the borders’, but of the military culture of suppressing dissent and imposing the chain of order that is not supposed to be questioned. Using the rhetoric of the soldier’s sacrifice is a mere sentimental camouflage. These soldiers are made into “heroes” only when they are ‘fighting’ or are dead. The dead soldier or the sacrificed soldiers are then used as tools to propagate the same culture of war which took their lives.
a citizen has the right to criticise the government and its policies without it being a ‘grave insult’ or ’seditious’.
Making people fall prey to the whole narrative of the “sacrificed soldier” and using it as a weapon to violently silence voices is a double manipulation by the government. Are our soldiers only to be humanized after they lose their lives? If we really cared about our soldiers and the reason why they join the forces in the first place won’t we be questioning the culture of warfare propagated in their name and help avoid conflict? They become a mere political tool to fuel the politics of jingoistic anger and stand as equal losers as the people, you and me, who are manipulated to give into the culture of war-mongering.
This culture perceives any criticism or dissent as threat, and answers any perceived threat with weapons like the army tank. But more importantly, this culture expects applause – if not on the ground of the successful silencing of voices, then on the grounds of its silenced sacrificial victims. The JNU VC’s attempt to remind the students of the sacrificed soldiers is just another ploy to gain applause at the cost of people’s voices.