Indian nationalism has a glorious history. It spurred the country’s freedom struggle against the British and helped endow the people of the subcontinent with a sense of common national identity. However, nearly 70 years after India became an independent nation, the idea of nationalism that is roiling the country today is as divisive as it is dangerous.

On February 22 activists of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), a far-right student body, went on a rampage in Delhi’s Ramjas College, because Umer Khalid and Shehla Rashid, two students from the prestigious Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), had been invited to speak at a seminar. Last year, Umer Khalid had been charged with the colonial era law of sedition for allegedly having raised anti-India slogans. The ABVP, which is affiliated to the Hindu nationalist outfit, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), was fiercely opposed to having Khalid on campus. So its members beat up students and lecturers who tried to stand up to their intimidation.

That’s not all. Gurmehar Kaur, a 20-year-old student of Delhi University, who happens to be the daughter of a soldier killed in the 1999 Kargil war between India and Pakistan, was viciously trolled and showered with rape threats after she started a social media campaign against the violence unleashed by the ABVP on campus.

Her online tormentors found an old Facebook post by her where she had delivered the pacifist message that war, and not Pakistan, had killed her father. It became an excuse to dub her as an “anti-national” — the focal point of yet another shrill outcry on how so-called anti-national forces were out to denigrate and destabilise the country. Disturbingly, even celebrities and mainstream politicians joined the chorus and came out with their share of abuse and mockery against a young girl who had simply voiced an opinion on war.

In other words, a right-wing group’s open thuggery on campus and its attempt to stifle free speech was quickly drowned by invoking the bogey of anti-nationals at the door. The ABVP has kept the issue on the boil. Last week, its leaders said that “anti-national” activities could not be justified in the name of freedom of expression and conducted a march to “save” Delhi University from so-called anti-national forces. What lies behind the ABVP’s brand of jingoistic, absolutist nationalism? A nationalism that repeatedly sets itself against free speech and is repeatedly used to whip up a frenzy among the populace?

With 3.3 million members, the ABVP, which was formed in 1948, is India’s largest student body. It’s probably no coincidence that it has grown increasingly strident and witnessed a huge uptick in its numbers ever since the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power in 2014. After all, it has a co-sanguinary relationship with the BJP — both owe their ideological raison d’etre to the right-wing outfit RSS.

The ABVP was at the forefront of the bitter debate on nationalism that broke out in JNU last year, when its student union president Kanhaiya Kumar and some others were arrested as they had allegedly shouted anti-India slogans. Again, in 2015, it had clashed with a Dalit (members of India’s backward castes) student group in Hyderabad Central University, branding their activities as “anti-national”. Their systematic persecution of that group, aided and abetted by the powers-that-be, eventually led to the tragic suicide of a Dalit student leader named Rohith Vemula.

To understand the ABVP’s militant hyper-nationalism and its intolerance of other ideologies and views on campuses across India, one must look to its parent organisation, the RSS. The basic credo of the RSS, a body which was founded in 1925, is that the Indian identity is epitomised by Hindutva (Hindu-ness). And that the majority community, that is, the Hindus, embodies the nation. Minority communities, especially Muslims and Christians, are meant to subjugate themselves to this “one nation, one culture” doctrine. The point is that this doctrine is doomed to collide violently with an India that is multicultural, multi-ethnic and multi-religious. Any attempt to force fit a single monolithic culture — a single unifying thought — onto its syncretic ethos would require a massive majoritarian putsch where everyone participates in the effort to trample diversity, throttle dissent and demonise opposition. It would demand uncommon violence, an unabashed cult of fear and intimidation, to effect such a change.

Toxic brand of patriotic sentiment

And here lies the rationale for the tide of militant nationalism sweeping through India today. The ABVP and its cohorts are using a toxic brand of patriotic sentiment to try and gin up support for the “one nation, one culture” of their dreams. It is also part of the current cultural discourse in the country, where anything that does not conform to the majoritarian idea of India is at once reviled as anti-national.

Hence, if you do not worship at the altar of an anthropomorphic Bharat Matha (Mother India), or consume beef, or support Pakistani artistes working in Bollywood, or speak up against state atrocities in regions like Kashmir and Manipur that have witnessed secessionist movements, or for that matter criticise India’s right-wing government and its policies, you are liable to be attacked as an anti-national.

This is not nationalism. It’s merely a dog whistle for people to turn into lynch mobs and commit violence on the “other”. It’s a clever ploy to get the masses to believe that the constitutional guarantees of freedom of speech and pluralism are inimical to national interest. Unfortunately for India, too many people are getting seduced by this noxious messaging. Too few are trying to push back against it. If the current trend continues the idea of India as a secular, democratic, pluralistic culture may be in peril.

Shuma Raha is a senior journalist based in Delhi.