India is proud of its argumentative tradition. But that culture of debate and tolerance has been increasingly attacked by Hindu nationalists since the 2014 election of their standard-bearer Narendra Modi as prime minister, with several particularly disturbing incidents last month.
In late February, a college at Delhi University arranged a seminar on nationalism, free speech, dissent and sedition. As panelists discussed India’s caste system, a mob of hundreds from the student wing of the Hindu nationalist group Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, to which Mr. Modi belongs, surrounded the college.
Hindu nationalists led by the Akhil Bharatiya Vidhyarthi Parishad (A.B.V.P.), the student body of the R.S.S., had earlier objected to the inclusion of Umar Khalid, who attained prominence last year after being arrested along with other student leaders in connection with a protest over Kashmir. Mr. Khalid and his fellow activists — graduate students with a gift for oratory — emerged as powerful critics of Mr. Modi’s policies and positions upon their release from prison.
The organizers of the seminar agreed to drop Mr. Khalid as a speaker. Nonetheless, the mob charged the auditorium, hurling rocks, breaking windows, and cutting off electricity. Scores of professors and students were trapped as the bricks and stones rained and as the police, which reports to Mr. Modi’s government, stood by watching. The seminar was called off.
The A.B.V.P., which is affiliated with Mr. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (B.J.P.), is trying to create a new normal on campuses here. They want to establish a culture of idolatry, where students profess uncritical love of the nation. They seek to stifle the questioning of state excess or actions by right-wing vigilante groups. Dissenters face intimidation and violence.
Nationalism is majoritarian in character. Since majoritarian sentiment isn’t natural but political, it needs to be manufactured. A nationalist party in power has to take over the cultural sphere, especially the universities, which are regarded as safe havens for intellectual rigor and questioning. India’s universities and colleges have long been dominated by left and liberal ideas. The Hindu nationalists are attempting a hostile takeover.
Another example of this occurred in early February, when nationalist students, angered that a visiting lecturer criticized India’s policies in Kashmir, forced a university in Jodhpur, in the northern state of Rajasthan, to close. The professor who invited the speaker had to flee town for several days in fear. On her return, she discovered that the university had suspended her.
The day after the canceled seminar at Delhi University, students and teachers conducted a silent march to protest this attack on free speech. Marchers were seriously hurt when nationalists attacked them. The Delhi police, which report to Mr. Modi’s federal government, played spectator.
The most disturbing was the physical assault on professors by the nationalists. Prasanta Chakravarty, a professor of English, was beaten up by around 15 men; he ended up hospitalized with injuries to his abdomen, ribs and lungs.
In a Facebook post from the hospital, Mr. Chakravarty described the political situation as a “perfect fascist moment.” The “right is in ascendancy today,” he added, it had done “this painstaking job of hate-mongering effectively.”
The great gift of the university is that it enables students to question laws and social norms that victimize the underprivileged castes, religious and sexual minorities, migrants, workers and women. It is at the universities that students are encouraged to push for rights and justice within the framework of democracy.
Today, though, students who do that are being harassed and threatened. A Delhi University student named Gurmehar Kaur drew national attention for her condemnation of the violence by the Hindu nationalist A.B.V.P. In a social media post that went viral, Ms. Kaur posted a picture of herself holding a placard reading: “I am a student of Delhi University. I am not afraid of A.B.V.P. I am not alone. Every student of India is with me.”
A lawmaker from Mr. Modi’s party retaliated by digging up a post Ms. Kaur had made last year about her father, an Indian soldier who died in the Kargil conflict in Kashmir in 1999. In the post, Ms. Kaur held a postcard that read, “Pakistan did not kill my dad, war killed him.” The lawmaker tweeted the post along with a photograph of Dawood Ibrahim, the fugitive Muslim don of the Mumbai underworld, who killed 257 people in that city in bombings in 1993. Beneath Mr. Ibrahim’s photograph he wrote, “I didn’t kill people in 1993, bombs killed them.”
Ms. Kaur’s perspective that blamed the ideology of war, thus implicating both sides, was too disconcerting for the nationalists. Nationalist celebrities ridiculed her. Rape threats followed. Ms. Kaur announced that she was giving up her campaign.
Anyone expressing ideas unacceptable to India’s new militant nationalism faces an inquisition. This movement leaves no space for an intellectual culture to thrive, where ideas can prosper. When patriotic sentiments become allergic to criticism, nationalism poses a danger to democracy.
A nationalism that responds to arguments with threats alone is an enemy of culture. In such times, critical thinking is an activity not only to restore culture, but also to keep alive the promise of the future, of what Jacques Derrida called a “democracy to come.”
The future is born from debating ideas. To replace debate with violence in the name of nationalism is a threat to democracy. It is time to heed the celebrated poet and Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore’s words: “My countrymen will gain truly their India by fighting against that education which teaches them that a country is greater than the ideals of humanity.”
Manash Firaq Bhattacharjee teaches poetry at Ambedkar University in New Delhi.