The recent debate in New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) over the request for a defunct “battle tank” on campus as a patriotism-inspiring symbol by the VC of the university has deepened the state of tension, suspicion and discord that has afflicted the campus over the past few years. Amidst all the hue and cry associated with the incident,  one begins to wonder if such a request was a misplaced one and if this be the first time a  piece of military equipment has been contemplated as a “symbol” for something in an academic campus in India ? 

The answer to that is NO. The Jamia Millia Islamia University, a university as competitive as JNU has a MiG-23 aircraft on display in its campus since 2010. The Jalandhar Air Force Station presented it to the university and the said aircraft is guarded round the clock by three guards. Likewise, the Boys’ High School & College, Allahabad , a Christian school has a battle tank gifted by its alumni standing in the precincts of this institution as a symbol of patriotism and national pride. So why in the world does a battle tank as a tribute to the martyrs of the army or as a symbolic representation of patriotism such an anathema to some left-leaning student organizations and professors of JNU ?. It is these very same people who shouted from roof-tops last year that dissident opinions and ideologies are entitled to tolerance in a democratic society…. Isn´t it ? So why is now the opinion of others not tolerable to them ?

The answer lies in the de facto narrative of what constitutes patriotism or what exhibits national pride in India that has been built over the years. For most of its 70 years as an independent nation, India has effectively been a one-party socialist state ruled by the left-of-center Congress party and the JNU campus has remained an exclusive bastion of left-leaning intellectuals (Nehruvian socialists and Communists). Over time, the views of these intellectuals on a social construct such as patriotism has become the predominant ideology not only in JNU but also the de facto national narrative. Exhalted ideals of patriotism and righteous patriotic symbols therefore came to be those associated exclusively with Mahathma Gandhi, Ahimsa (non-violent struggle for independence) or of Gandhian idealogues, whereas militant armed struggles be it of 1857 or of Bhagat Singh and Chandra Shekhar Azad or of the military struggles of Indian National Army (INA) under Subhash Chandra Bose were all somehow rendered less worthy off-shoots of the Indian independence movement. In truth, military struggles against the British in pre-independent India and military struggles against Independent India´s enemies (namely Pakistan and China) have contributed significantly to the creation and sustenance of the “Union” we today proudly call INDIA. Swords, pick-axes, guns, battle tanks and fighter jets are as much a symbol of India´s tryst with freedom as Ahimsa and fasting are, although that may not suite the one-sided narrative we have become so accustomed to over the years. Such a reduction of India´s freedom and patriotic symbols to  the exalted Gandhian Ahimsa and diminishing military struggles or the role of the military would be the most intellectually dishonest approach.

A battle tank is no less a symbol of patriotism and armed struggle as a statue of Gandhi is for patriotism and non-violent struggle – they must co-exist as symbols of freedom and national pride in the academic and intellectual narrative of the abstraction we call our nation. If you go by much of the public debate playing out in the media, we are asked to choose between liberalism and nationalism over a battle tank !!, ostensibly represented by the Left and the Sangh Parivar respectively. If you support the battle tank, you are perforce deemed a right-wing nationalist and nationalists cannot be liberal, and liberals cannot be nationalist – how absurd.

Here’s the point though: If you support the freedom of some individuals to shout anti-India slogans until they are blue in the face, as long as there is no violence, then so must you acknowledge the freedom of others who see patriotism in a defunct battle tank. Likewise, if you support the history and symbols of non-violent struggle in the freedom of India so must you equally acknowledge the historical contributions and symbols of military struggles in the continuing freedom of the nation we call “our India”.