How conventional and social media directed nationalist rage inwards
The new tide of hyper-nationalism settles scores as often within as across the border.
Television channels and the social media have been immersed in a wave of nationalism over the last few days, as India has been engaged in hostilities with Pakistan after the Pulwama terror attack killing about 40 Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) jawans.
The focus on nationalism and national security – and the anger over Pulwama or the euphoria after the Balakot strike of the Indian Air Force – is on expected lines.
It is something the country has witnessed in all the wars it has fought since independence.
However, there is more to this nationalist tide.
Be it TV channels whipping up war hysteria or messages on WhatsApp groups, much of the nationalism on display is not merely targeting the enemy across the border.
Rage is also directed within: messages against the Congress and “liberals” are interspersed between those targeting the Pakistani state.
Days back, as I entered my office to plan the day’s news flow, I saw the news alert that the Indian Air Force had violated the Line of Control to bomb a Jaish-e-Mohammad hideout near Balakot.
This was, and predictably so, followed by jubilant tweets -- and forwarded messages on my WhatsApp groups -- regarding the surgical strike, this time using the air force.
The euphoria was palpable.
I had heard stories at home as to how young men had queued up to join the army around the Sino-Indian border war of 1962.
I also vividly recalled my student days, when we as university students had contributed clothes for soldiers during the Kargil War. These clothes were bundled together in my hostel – Periyar hostel in Jawaharlal Nehru University – to be sent for the national cause through the authorities.
After all, in times of external threat, the nation comes together. Internal differences melt away.
This was how it always was.
But something struck me over the last few days, as I followed the social media.
The “enemy” now was not the Jaish-e-Mohammad or the Pakistani establishment alone. Social media posts were attacking Congress president Rahul Gandhi and his brother-in-law Robert Vadra.
Some particularly shrill TV anchors talked about how “friends of Pakistan within” would be reacting to the turn of events.
There was the talk of a “new India”, almost undermining our war veterans and soldiers martyred in the past. And of course, our former Prime Ministers, including, ironically, Atal Bihari Vajpayee of the BJP.
I had to remind some friends forwarding these messages that India had successfully engaged Pakistan four times in conflict, and even split the neighbouring country in the 1971 war.
The concern is that this moment of solidarity in the face of external threat is not making Indians close ranks. It is making them settle political scores.
On Twitter, there were posts that sought to use the IAF strike for political one-upmanship the day it took place.
One post on Twitter read, “Same IAF. Same Army. Same borders. Same terrorists. Same enemy nation. The only change is that an Italian has been replaced by an Indian leader.” The message: this is a victory of Prime Minister Narendra Modi over Congress leader Sonia Gandhi.
The internal enemy to be attacked at this moment of national crisis would vary from the Congress leadership to journalists like Barkha Dutt and Ravish Kumar.
This wave of nationalism was obsessed with the perceived enemy within. The Pakistani establishment was not its only ‘Other’.
But such a problematic, self-defeating, reading of nationalism at this juncture is not really unexpected. For, this is a line on nationalism promoted by sections of the government and the media since 2016.
University students at JNU faced sedition cases on charges that were backed by suspect evidence. There was talk about the installation of tanks and the tricolour on campuses.
The message: India is not a nation based on bonds that are felt rather than trumpeted. Rather, it is a society split between nationalists and “anti-nationals”, who have to be disciplined.
The sentiment continues unabated even in times of an external threat, undermining national unity. Within this discourse, the Pakistani establishment becomes the external enemy somehow supported by enemies within. These could be ordinary Kashmiris, liberals, the opposition parties, academics or students studying in some top universities.
To stand with the government during a time of crisis is not to stand against the opposition, the sentinel of our Parliamentary democracy that makes the government accountable.
The marshalling of nationalist rage in ways that direct it inwards can be the worst disservice to the nation at a time of a threat to national security. But this disservice masquerades as nationalism today.
It feeds on the beautiful bond tying one citizen to another and devours it in the process.