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Kanhaiya doesn't demean our soldiers' sacrifice. Here's why

Payal Puri @payalpuri

Whataboutery is a global disease. What I hadn't realised until now is that it has spread even to arguably the most reasoned of Indian institutions: our courts.

One of the most insidious and fascinating aspects of the Kanhaiya-JNU row is the ease with which an utterly spurious correlation has spread.

The one between the rights of a citizen and the role of a soldier.

Over the past few weeks I've been astonished at the number of people buying into this emotive argument: "What must a soldier battling the harsh conditions of Siachen feel when anti-national slogans are shouted on campuses or on the streets of India?"

But on Thursday, that same correlation was invoked in court by Justice Pratibha Rani in her judgment on Kanhaiya's bail plea.

"While dealing with the bail application of the petitioner, it has to be kept in mind by all concerned that they are enjoying this freedom only because our borders are guarded by our armed and paramilitary forces," said the court.

"Suffice it to note that such persons enjoy the freedom to raise such slogans in the comfort of University Campus but without realising that they are in this safe environment because our forces are there at the battle field situated at the highest altitude of the world where even the oxygen is so scarce that those who are shouting anti-national slogans holding posters of Afzal Guru and Maqbool Bhat close to their chest honouring their martyrdom, may not be even able to withstand those conditions for an hour even."

It's a correlation that was introduced into public consciousness by politicians who - and I'm surprised this doesn't outrage us - used the deaths of soldiers guarding the nation against other citizens of the country.

They used a constellation of brave, fearless men who did not deserve to die - to prevent others from living as the constitution guarantees we can.

But the bigger issue with the 'what a soldier feels' argument is this: our limited understanding of what the soldier really does when he guards our borders.

Every Indian soldier protects this country from a host of 'enemies'. The physical ones, first and foremost. Pakistan, and China, most visibly.

But what exactly is it about Pakistan or China that represents the enemy?

This understanding is at the core of what the soldier does.

He doesn't just protect us from the physicality of an invasion. He protects us from the ideologies those countries represent.

Closed societies. Hierarchical societies. Repressive societies. Societies that want to monitor your actions, your beliefs, your thoughts. Absolute societies.

Societies where you cannot stand up and question the country.

Every Indian soldier protects not just the borders of India but the idea of India.

The ideas of plurality and freedom. The ideas of equality and justice. The very principles on which this country was founded.

India is not its geography alone. Its states and its physicality. Its 1.3 billion people and its staggering statistics.

India is a fundamental set of beliefs, principles and ideas that Pakistan, for one, rejected when it chose its different tryst with destiny. India is multipolar and multicultural to Pakistan's unipolar.

The India we constitutionally chose to become ordains that we do not have to agree with the content of what Kanhaiya says in order to protect his right to say it.

That is exactly what is worth protecting about India.

And that is why every student who gets up and questions, argues, debates, challenges and pushes those boundaries and principles doesn't enable Pakistan.

He distinguishes us from it.

Kanhaiya doesn't demean the soldier's job.

He represents it. He validates it.

Kanhaiya the student is not the issue. Kanhaiya's beliefs are not the point. Kanhaiya, too, is an idea.

An idea that makes India worth protecting. The soldier steps up and does it. In that, they are aligned more than politicians and 'nationalists' will ever know.

Payal Puri

Payal Puri @payalpuri