The JNU debate (or lack thereof)

At the outset:

1. I do not support the arrest of JNU students. The arrests were unwarranted and strategically stupid.

2. Yes, there are hotheads in the BJP.

But I also find it hugely disturbing when the focus shifts entirely to the reaction.

Following the events of that day, the most overused quote in the last week might be the one by Samuel Johnson “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel” (I’ll just call it the “Headline Statement” in this note). In the TOI edition of 17th Feb, both Swaminathan Aiyer (prominent Indian journalist) and Manish Tewari (Congress member and former minister in the Central Government) included the Headline Statement in their article and interview respectively to make their point. I had heard the quote before, but today I decided to read more about it because, without context, that quote seems shallow at best.

I believe most people don’t know who Samuel Johnson was, and why his words should mean anything in modern society. So, for some context, he was a distinguished writer, who in 1774 released a paper titled ‘The Patriot’. He also made the Headline Statement in 1775.

In this note, I am not saying whether I necessarily agree with him or not. I don’t know enough about his complete body of work to suggest whether he deserves any attention. Being a great writer doesn’t necessarily make one an expert in politics and/ or finer aspects of building a nation (am I being a “nationalist” by even talking about building a nation?). However, given that the left-leaning intelligentsia assumes he’s right, I am giving him the benefit of the doubt for the purpose of this note.

Let me give some context through some of the things mentioned in that paper published in 1774:

“It ought to be deeply impressed on the minds of all who have voices in this national deliberation, that no man can deserve a seat in parliament, who is not a patriot. No other man will protect our rights: no other man can merit our confidence.

A patriot is he whose publick conduct is regulated by one single motive, the love of his country; who, as an agent in parliament, has, for himself, neither hope nor fear, neither kindness nor resentment, but refers every thing to the common interest.”

He did not denounce patriotism as the evil that many are proclaiming it to be. In fact, he calls it the utmost virtue that every parliament member must have. What he did denounce was false patriotism (more on that next). Also, let’s be very careful before we tom-tom that headline statement without providing context. Every time you fashionably say that you salute our brave soldiers, you are saluting their patriotism. They don’t do it for the money or the fame. For most, there is very little of it. For some, a life in the armed forces does mean making a stable, respectable career. But for the vast majority of the armed forces, patriotism above all else makes them persevere against all odds. If with one brush you want to insult patriotism, then I don’t think you’ve earned the right to salute them for protecting you.

More excerpts from Samuel Johnson’s ‘The Patriot’:

“Some claim a place in the list of patriots, by an acrimonious and unremitting opposition to the court.

This mark is by no means infallible. Patriotism is not necessarily included in rebellion. A man may hate his king, yet not love his country. He that has been refused a reasonable, or unreasonable request, who thinks his merit underrated, and sees his influence declining, begins soon to talk of natural equality, the absurdity of “many made for one,” the original compact, the foundation of authority, and the majesty of the people. As his political melancholy increases, he tells, and, perhaps, dreams, of the advances of the prerogative, and the dangers of arbitrary power; yet his design, in all his declamation, is not to benefit his country, but to gratify his malice.

These, however, are the most honest of the opponents of government; their patriotism is a species of disease; and they feel some part of what they express. But the greater, far the greater number of those who rave and rail, and inquire and accuse, neither suspect nor fear, nor care for the publick; but hope to force their way to riches, by virulence and invective, and are vehement and clamorous, only that they may be sooner hired to be silent.”

This is the silence that the Indian National Congress has been buying over the last 65 years and now their waning influence has led them to the path of mischief. As another journalist put it well, JNU is not a problem just because of the anti-national slogans. It is a problem because it prohibits any idea that does not toe the line set by these left-leaning groups. I have personally been at the receiving end of incredible intolerance from these self-proclaimed champions of free speech and the free flow of ideas — in the best case, I might be ignored, but it often ends in derision and suffocation. Unlike what these people may believe, physical harm is not the only way to shut someone up; you guys have been doing a fabulous job over the last several years by verbally demolishing ideas through peer pressure and eloquent outrage.

More excerpts from Samuel Johnson’s ‘The Patriot’:

“A man sometimes starts up a patriot, only by disseminating discontent, and propagating reports of secret influence, of dangerous counsels, of violated rights, and encroaching usurpation.

This practice is no certain note of patriotism. To instigate the populace with rage beyond the provocation, is to suspend publick happiness, if not to destroy it. He is no lover of his country, that unnecessarily disturbs its peace. Few errors and few faults of government, can justify an appeal to the rabble; who ought not to judge of what they cannot understand, and whose opinions are not propagated by reason, but caught by contagion.

The fallaciousness of this note of patriotism is particularly apparent, when the clamour continues after the evil is past.”

Peace has repeatedly been disturbed since the Congress was finally shrunk down to less than a 10th of the Lok Sabha. Provocation & insinuation with or without an occurrence, cherry picking of issues to express outrage and continued, debilitating criticism — these are the hallmarks of the “scoundrel” that Samuel Johnson referred to.

I would be a lot more at peace if even half the outrage that we see in the JNU incident (by political leaders and the media) was directed towards the political killings in Bihar and Kerala (yes, that took place in the past week too).

I hope this provides the context to that Headline Statement that seems to provide every left-liberal the armory to belittle patriotism and disturb the peace and prosperity of this country. Just the fact that I write this article should tell the “other side” that there is another take on the issue, that there are well-meaning, aggrieved people on both sides of a debate. But in this age of social media and groupthink, who has time for a nuanced debate.

I am ready to listen, are you?