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Why Pakistani students need to stand in solidarity with JNU

Updated February 23, 2016

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Indian students shout slogans from inside a police van. —AFP
Indian students shout slogans from inside a police van. —AFP

I don't know what kids are being taught these days but when I was in school, we were pretty much told to parrot feel-good stories about national victim-hood.

Dictated into our curriculum, this nation-building project was born out of the many historical antagonisms between supporters of India and Pakistan.

Also read: What is the most blatant lie taught through Pakistan textbooks?

It was also defined by an institution that often feels entitled to political power because it thinks it lives and breathes realpolitik.

For many of my classfellows, the narrative espoused by this project implanted in their consciousness an indisputable memory of the Partition's complex legacy, and it would eventually come to define how they viewed themselves (eternal victims of foreign conspiracies), and how they viewed India and 'the West', our eternal enemies.


It is about time that students in India and Pakistan drop this silly understanding of history and try to build bridges over common challenges faced by young people who reject monolithic state-narratives.


Right now, Indian students at the Jawaharlal Nehru University and across India are protesting against the criminalisation of political dissent.

They are resisting the state's smear campaigns that link academics and activists to terrorism.

They are questioning the rights-deficit in their political economy and they are trying to discuss whether it’s possible to be an 'Indian' without 'hating' Pakistan. Surely, we can relate to their concerns.

But, do we?

Also read: Campus rumpus

Rabrindranath Tagore once said that “people who need to be hypnotised with shrieking invocations to a mother or a deity, do not love their country so much as they love passion. The attempt to maintain a stronger infatuation with something over and above the truth is a symptom of our instilled sense of slavery.”

Pakistanis are a passionate people, and they generally consider nationalism to be a good thing. But the atrocities at APS and Bacha Khan compel us to think about the safety of our children, their right to free inquiry and the hope of innovating new solutions to old problems.

No matter what we think we know about being 'Pakistani', we too, need to have similar discussions as our JNU counterparts.

Also read: When 'their' children gun down 'our' children

We are paying a heavy price, and we cannot afford to simply ignore any question that disturbs our precious illusions.

One can see why nationalism has such appeal. It has a transcendental quality to it — it connects us to a larger existence.

Moreover, we are comforted by the thought of no longer being responsible for our actions because we can blame everything on these bogey monsters, orchestrating and designing all our failures.

Also read: To foil the nationalist narrative

India and the West might have done some horrible things to us, but they did not give us our heartless bureaucracy.

They did not make us evade our taxes.

They did not make us deny our children the right to education.

They did not pull the trigger on our proletariats when they came to the streets to demand better pay or basic subsidies.

That was us.

We did that to ourselves. But, of course, we don't have to think about it when we have outsourced all responsibility to our oppressors — we ought to thank them for this freedom.

Moreover, nationalism is never satisfied with compromise and reconciliation because it can measure its worth and value only through its dominance over the 'other'.

As a result, Pakistan and India have tried to purge from their cultural repertoire those traditions and practices they associate with each other.

Take the Basant ban, or Valentine's Day. The President's comments that we should avoid Valentine's Day celebrations, simply because they have 'nothing to do with our culture' is not only incorrect (you can find epic tales of love in our literatures and you can also find depictions of naked figures and sentient winged genitals in Mughal Art), but it also endorses a logic that the state ought to distance itself from, especially if it wishes to be taken seriously regarding its fight against terrorism.

Also read: Is celebrating love not a part of our culture?

When the Taliban attack schools and universities in Pakistan, they say it is to save the young from being indoctrinated in a value-system that is alien to our culture.

If our representatives and our enemies situate Pakistani culture outside of a syncretic historical tradition, in the abstract and intangible dimension of religious identity, then we are dealing with an attitude steeped dangerously, and conveniently, in self-righteousness.

We need to be better than that.

Also read: Jawaharlal Nehru University row — Freedom of speech now Modi-fied in New Delhi

It is in the spirit of humility, that we ought to stop looking at India through the lens of our state institutions.

The JNU row is a watershed moment for solidarity networks on both sides, who have been given a rare opportunity to reinvigorate a much needed dialogue between young people in India and Pakistan.

This opportunity to see past the narratives spun by state institutions must not be wasted.

Given the fact that Indian and Pakistani students are both dogged by religious and nationalist censure, it is about time young voices assert their stake in history and fight for the right to dissent — together.