BJP supporters in Ahmadabad, India shout slogans during a protest against alleged anti-nationalist students

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Brandishing the Indian tricolour hoisted on long bamboo poles, they shouted in turns “glory to Mother India”, “down with Pakistan” and “shoot the traitors”. The extraordinary mob of black-coated lawyers were out again in force. Two days after beating up students and journalists at Patiala House Courts, in the heart of New Delhi, they stood primed for their main target.

Kanhaiya Kumar cut a frightened figure as he was escorted through this throng in February. Then president of the students’ union at the capital’s illustrious Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), named after India’s first prime minister and regarded as a liberal bastion, he was facing charges of sedition. Despite police protection, Kumar was punched and kicked to the ground, his clothing dislodged, in a vicious assault by the lawyers-turned-thugs. The surrounding officers, a few of whom also sustained blows, eventually scooped him into the courtroom. But outside raged a battle in the name of Indian nationalism.

By this point, Kumar, a charismatic 29-year-old from the eastern state of Bihar, pursuing a PhD in African studies, was already a household name. In little over a week he had become both India’s most loathed “anti-national” and an icon for free speech, his arrest a flashpoint for concerns about mounting intolerance under the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

The furore was sparked on 9 February, when a fringe group of JNU students protested at the 2013 hanging of Afzal Guru, a Kashmiri separatist convicted over a deadly attack on India’s parliament. They also called for the conflict-torn region’s right to self-determination. Neither demand was unusual at the left-leaning JNU. Students have previously agitated against the execution, echoing calls by rights groups, among other perceived abuses of power.

But on this occasion the rally was filmed by journalists. Major broadcasters aired it non-stop, demanding, in the shrill style that dominates Indian TV news, arrests of the “anti-nationals”. Their ire focused on the slogans raised: “We will not tolerate Afzal’s murder,” chanted some protesters. Others, believed to be Kashmiris rather than students, shouted: “India will be destroyed into pieces, Allah willing.” A few news outlets went as far as “identifying” student sloganeers, while on Twitter the home minister warned that anyone who challenged India’s integrity would “not be tolerated or spared”.

Beneath the media frenzy a much older debate was resurfacing. It pitted a national identity built on a secular, liberal and inclusive democracy, as thrashed out and enshrined in the country’s post-independence constitution, against one rooted in the idea of India as a Hindu nation.

In a rousing campus speech two days after the protest Kumar robustly defended the former. “We don’t need a certificate of patriotism from the RSS,” he said to claps and cheers, referring to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the hardline Hindu organisation and ideological patron of the BJP whose student wing first raised alarm about the campus rally. Kumar spoke for freedom of expression, but he also denounced the most extreme slogans at the event, which he had neither organised nor participated in. The next day he was detained on charges of sedition.

I met him in the sprawling, tree-filled grounds of JNU following his release on bail. The 23 days he spent in jail without charge, amid an ongoing police investigation, had not dampened his spirit. Surrounded by a coterie of friends, Kumar said he would fight for India’s secular identity. “We have to take a stand to save our democracy, our constitution. How can we say India is a Hindu raashtra (nation)? India is a very diverse country. One kind of nationalism is not possible, on the basis of religion or language.”

Thousands have united to lay claim to that pluralist idea of India. The human chains that formed in JNU to protest Kumar’s arrest spread nationwide, with calls of solidarity from as far afield as Britain and the United States. They banded together for his release but also in defence of the right to dissent. Even the most controversial of the slogans did not qualify as sedition under India’s colonial-era law, say legal experts, as they failed to incite violence. But later in February two other students, Umar Khalid and Anirban Bhattacharya, the protest organisers, were detained on the same charge.

“It’s far more than a freedom of expression issue,” said Parnal Chirmuley, an associate professor in German at JNU, on the sidelines of a bustling march through the smog of central Delhi, calling for Khalid and Bhattacharya to be freed. “The law is being used to ratchet up cases against innocent people, make them scapegoats,” she said, adding the timing was impeccable with “three (state) elections lined up” in Assam, West Bengal and Kerala.

The BJP has long been accused of stirring communal tensions between Muslims and Hindus in a bid to win votes. Its anti-Muslim rhetoric appeared to have backfired in key state elections last year in Delhi and Bihar where it was defeated by regional parties competing on more inclusive platforms. But Ananya Vajpeyi, an associate fellow at the New Delhi-based Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, said the losses had failed to deter RSS hardliners, who finally have one of their most dedicated former cadres, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in charge.

The sweeping BJP victory that thrust Modi into power in 2014 gave the party its first-ever majority government in the most decisive mandate for any Indian leader in decades. “The BJP, driven by the RSS, wants to shift the ground on which we understand India. Who does this nation belong to? What does it mean to be against it? The symbolic repertoire of the state, the whole semiotics of allegiance, belonging and citizenship has been brought to the fore again,” said Vajpeyi.
Patriotism is increasingly under test. Ever since the sedition arrests the RSS, backed by the BJP, has called on Indians to profess their loyalty to the nation by chanting “Bharat Mata Ki Jai” (glory to Mother India). They claim it is not a religious slogan but critics argue it is a backhanded attempt at forcing Hindutva ideology – a belief in the supremacy of Hinduness – into the public sphere by deifying India. Mother India is depicted as a Hindu goddess, sat atop a lion and holding an Indian flag, in RSS iconography.

In March a Muslim lawmaker was suspended from parliament in the state of Maharashtra after refusing to chant the words. His ejection was led by Hindu nationalists but supported by members of India’s Congress Party, which was founded on Nehru’s vision of secularism but is accused by some of stoking communalism when convenient.

Vasudha Pande, associate professor of history at Delhi University, points to the mushrooming of hardline groups promoting the idea of a Hindu India in recent years. They “often push for more aggressive postures” than the BJP, but have become emboldened since the party came to power, she said. One was launched last year by a prominent BJP leader to prioritise the building of a Hindu temple in Ayodhya. The religious site in northern India has for decades been bitterly disputed between Hindus and Muslims and in 1992 ignited some of the country’s worst religious violence since partition.

Fears of increasing intolerance under Modi’s rule were expressed last October, when dozens of Indian writers returned top literary awards in protest against what they said was a rise of violent Hindu nationalism and a shrinking space for dissent. The BJP dismissed it as a political attack but the revolt was a response to two specific episodes.

The first was the murder of well-known rationalist thinker Malleshappa Kalburgi, shot dead at his home in the southern state of Karnataka in August 2015. The Indian scholar had recently been under police protection after he was threatened by rightwing Hindu groups for criticising idol worship. The second was the lynching of a Muslim man by a Hindu mob last September on suspicion of his eating beef. Cows are considered sacred by India’s Hindu majority and their slaughter is banned in most states. Modi came under fire from secularists for failing to condemn the murder outright as well as for his delayed offer of sympathies. Several BJP leaders went on to call for a nationwide beef ban and stricter punishments for its consumption, a move thought to unfairly target Muslim, Christian, Dalit and tribal communities who eat the meat.

Kumar’s arrest provided a rallying point for this bubbling discontent. The BJP’s political opponents were quick to speak in his defence. For the politically astute Kumar, a member of the All India Students’ Federation, which is aligned to the Communist Party of India (CPI), it was an opportunity to get class politics back on the agenda.

I spoke to him again by telephone in May. Fresh from campaigning for the CPI in Kerala, meetings with political leaders in Bihar and a hunger strike in Delhi to protest disciplinary punishments from JNU, all while writing a book about his experiences, the student leader was embracing a bigger political platform. “We students think this entire debate – nationalist versus anti-nationalist – is basically to divert the issue of the common mass of this country,” said Kumar, speaking with a conviction borne from his own modest upbringing in a region dubbed the Leningrad of Bihar for its traditional allegiance to communist parties.

Kumar explained he was building an alliance of student activists across the country to campaign on everything from youth unemployment to education. He had also joined forces with an existing campus movement for a “Rohith Act” to tackle caste discrimination. In nearly every protest calling for Kumar’s release in February were cries seeking justice for Rohith Vemula, a Dalit student found hanged in January. Vemula fought for Dalit rights at the University of Hyderabad, committing suicide after he was accused of being part of an assault on the head of a rightwing student group, a charge he denied. The merging of these movements – both influenced by the politics of Dalit leader BR Ambedkar, the chief architect of India’s constitution – is part of a wider student mobilisation Kumar thinks can counter “growing communal fascism”. The “resistance”, he says, “will come from students.”

Kumar’s friends joke about his overnight stardom. “Ek din tum bahut bade banoge (One day you will become a very important person) ... Will you forget me then?” sings one with a wry smile, using an old Hindi film song to express their feelings about his newfound fame. The then union leader’s speech at JNU, on his release from jail, was broadcast live by most Indian news channels, transfixing households nationwide. His popularity with ordinary people already transcends that of many Indian politicians. But Kumar also finds himself at the receiving end of an at times violent backlash – he has received death threats and had shoes thrown at him by religious activists during speeches on at least two occasions. Police still provide him with security when he leaves campus.

Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, a journalist who has written about Hindu sectarian politics for several decades, including a biography of Modi, thinks that even if the cases against the three students are eventually dropped the Hindu nationalists will have won. “The RSS is winning the argument,” he said in a telephone interview from New Delhi. “Anyone who opposes what the government is doing is immediately branded an anti-national.” Mukhopadhyay pointed to recent BJP gains in regional elections where the RSS had campaigned on the ground.

Increasingly virulent projections of Hindu nationalism are already on display. Across India angry mobs have been attacking, sometimes fatally, the mostly Muslim and Dalit workers who dispose of bovine carcasses, as self-appointed protectors of the hallowed cow. An unprecedented mass of counter-protest by Dalits eventually saw Modi condemn the violence, even as the RSS persists in praising the so-called cow protection groups. Then in September the
nationalism debate took another dangerous turn. A deadly terrorist attack on Indian soldiers in Kashmir unleashed a fresh wave of jingoism. With India blaming Pakistan for the attack, a charge Islamabad has denied, Hindu hardliners are creating new tests of loyalty. Bollywood directors are among their targets, coming under pressure to stop working with Pakistani actors.

On the day he was set to be released from jail, Kumar drew a map of India on his prison wall, adding a message he hoped would be seen by the then still detained Khalid and Bhattacharya. “India is the biggest democracy?” Bhattacharya would later read when he was moved into the same cell. The legions of secular Indians mobilised by their case are determined to ensure the answer to that question is a resounding and inclusive yes.