About 10 days ago I posted a Facebook status in protest of the government's crackdown on Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), supporting its students' (basically all students') right to free speech and dissent.
What surprised me was the response I received on social media. Most of those who commented on the status were friends from the Army background. Some were serving officers.
The general tone was: How could I support an institution that protests the hanging of terrorists like such as Afzal Guru and promises to break up this country into pieces when there are soldiers dying to protect us from such anti-national elements?
How could I support the Right to Freedom of Expression and the right to dissent of ungrateful anti-nationals like them, when there were soldiers dying at the border, fighting for our freedom?
This bothered me. Not the fact that my friends disagreed with my opinion, but the argument: "there are soldiers at the border dying to protect me and my freedom so I must not disrespect them by supporting JNU and its students".
A few days ago, BJP's Anurag Thakur participated in a Lok Sabha debate on the JNU crisis. He spoke about the sacrifices of Capt Pawan Kumar, Capt Mahajan and Lance Naik Hanamanthappa Koppad who laid down their lives serving the nation.
While soldiers were dying for our nation, some (he referred to the Congress party) were defending an institution that supports Maoism, and a host of students were speaking of breaking up our country, he said.
While the politicisation of the scenario is not what I want to get into (BJP's own ally in Jammu & Kashmir strongly opposes Afzal Guru's hanging), I realised this comparison was what was being made everywhere; by some journalists, politicians and the media at large.
It made me wonder by supporting JNU and the right to dissent, was I disrespecting an organisation that I was born into? An organisation I believe in strongly? An organisation my father served for 35 years, as did my grandfather, uncle and brother-in-law?
For me there is no co-relation between the two things. For me, the Army is there precisely to protect these rights and freedoms - Freedom of Speech, right to dissent, freedom of the press - rights and freedom that is at stake today.
The Army is there to protect these precise freedoms and not to be a deterrent to them. They protect not just the borders of India but the idea of India. And part of that idea of India is the debate between ideologies and thoughts, some of which can make us uncomfortable.
The Army guards our borders, the borders we share with countries like Pakistan and China.
While China is economically bullying the rest of the world and is on its way to becoming the next super power, would we want to live in a society like theirs? Where human rights and freedoms are not absolute, where opinions are curtailed and the government is the supreme power?
Or a society like Pakistan's, where rights and freedom of citizens are the least of the state's priority?
I protest the allegation that JNU is anti-national. I protest the allegation that JNU is harvesting anti-national elements. I protest the arrest of Kanhaiya Kumar and sedition charges filed against him and other students based on doctored videos.
I protest the allegation made by the government that the JNU event on 9 February was backed by terror outfit Lashkar-e-Tayyeba. I protest the JNU crackdown by the police and political groups. I protest the violent attack on students and journalists outside Patiala court.
While I protest all of this. I also do not support the slogans raised in JNU by some students on 9 February. But I do understand it.
Here is a little background about me: When I say I am from the Army, I mean I am an Army officer's daughter. My father served in the forces for 35 years. He was posted at 16 cantonments through his career and served at many more stations on temporary duties, some of which were had the harshest of environments. Even now, he doesn't agree with several of my views.
My mother, too, was in the Army. Three generations of my family served in the Army. Most of my friends are now Army officers, too.
I have lived a typical military life, moving from station to station, changed eight schools in my life, lived in separated family quarters, while my father served in field areas.
I used to go to school in big Shaktiman school buses, danced and sang at Saturday night social evenings, celebrated every religious festival in the Indian calendar, went only to military hospitals in case of medical emergencies... basically everything that an army kid can vouch to have done.
My father is a Bengali Brahmin and my mother is Lepcha (a small tribe from Sikkim) Christian. I am specifying this because I was always confused growing up as to what I was: a Hindu or a Christian; from West Bengal or Sikkim. My parents always said if anyone asks you what you are, say you are an Indian.
And it was a group of Indians who shouted those slogans in JNU on 9 February. Here I reiterate that while I may not agree with them, I do understand the sentiment behind it.
I am extremely proud the Army and the unparalleled sacrifice to the nation and their undeterred service in Kashmir and other fronts. But I am not indifferent to the long conflict-torn history of Kashmir and its people. I am not indifferent to numerous reports of deaths and disappearances of innocent civilians in the name of "collateral damage."
I am not indifferent to the ill-effects that Armed Forces Special Power Act (AFSPA) has had in Kashmir. I am not indifferent to the hundreds of deaths justified under AFSPA. I am not indifferent to the administrative failures of several governments in Kashmir and their inability to restore peace in the Valley.
A few years ago, I met a colleague who was a Muslim from a small village near Srinagar. During one of our numerous conversations, I realised he too wanted complete independence for Kashmir. This enraged me.
I lectured him about how the Army was killing, itself trying to protect the people of Kashmir and the nation from infiltration, militancy and violence. I told him how ungrateful he was being and that this country had given him everything he had.
To which he replied he had nothing. He wasn't a separatist until his family lost their livelihood during the insurgency in the early 1990s. He wasn't a separatist until his uncle's death was written off under AFSPA. What he said made me very uncomfortable but it wasn't the first time I was hearing of such incidents.
When you have only seen conflict and unrest right from your childhood, he said, when your democracy feels like an autocracy, where there is military repression, where the police are untrustworthy and your government incompetent, there is no option but to seek self-determination.
"If you were in my shoes, what would you want?" he asked me. "I don't know," I said.
I still don't know what I would want. It is a place I don't want to be in. And while I can't contest the need of AFSPA in Kashmir, I cannot bring myself to support it.
The Army taught me to never discriminate on the basis of religion. Which is why when Umar Khalid (a self proclaimed atheist, an extreme Leftist) was targeted for being a Muslim, I protested. When he was tried by the media, was accused of having connections with terrorist organisations, was called a jihadi, I felt a need to protest.
The Army taught me to never discriminate on the basis of caste and creed. Which is precisely why when science scholar Rohith Vemula was discriminated against for being a Dalit, leading to his suicide in Hyderabad Central University, I knew his story must not die with him.
His suicide highlighted the evils still rooted deep within our society. And the lack of action highlighted those of our government's.
At every important juncture in my life, the Army has taught me, drilled into me, the importance of equality. The need to not discriminate and the absolute necessity to stand your ground in the face of wrong.
So today, as the maelstrom around who's an anti-national rages around me threatening to drown democracy, I will stand my ground. I won't give in to the easy temptation of buying a free-pass to patriotism by demonising these youngsters.
Their views can be debated fiercely, their claims contested, but branding their right to expression and protest as anti-national goes against the grain of nationalism that I have seen in my country, and which actually separates a true democracy from other nations.
The views expressed here are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of the organisation or the family.
Edited by Joyjeet Das
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