In the confrontation between the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) and the Leftist students on various campuses, the saffron brotherhood’s muscular nationalism is facing stiff resistance not so much from the traditional politicians, despite their occasional interventions, as from the students.
Since the latter are seen to be driven more by unsullied ideology than any cunning political calculations, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has not found it easy to deal with these young idealists.
Its tactics have swayed back and forth, therefore, from outright condemnation of what the ABVP's opponents have been saying to an acknowledgement of the sincerity of the youthful left-leaning activists.
Nothing has shown the BJP's indecisiveness more than its varied responses to the 19-year-old Delhi student, Gurmehar Kaur's straightforward challenge to the ABVP, the Sangh parivar's student wing – "I am not afraid of the ABVP".
For the saffronites who wear their patriotism on their sleeves, the issue has been complicated by the fact that Gurmehar is the daughter of a soldier who died in a terrorist attack. They have had to tread carefully, therefore, when criticising her.
Even then, some in the BJP have tried to push the envelope as far as they could by depicting her as a pawn in the hands of the Leftist parties. Hence, Minister of State for Home Kiren Rijiju’s loaded question: Who’s polluting the mind of this young girl?
A Mysuru MP of the BJP even went to the extent of comparing her with Dawood Ibrahim, which prompted Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad to say that the parliamentarian was “wrong”.
Perhaps realising that the party was going too far in its criticism of the daughter of a martyr, Home Minister Rajnath Singh has called her a daughter of India.
Nevertheless, it is clear that the BJP finds it easier to lambaste Rahul Gandhi and Akhilesh Yadav than deal with adversaries like Gurmehar.
This is not the first time that the BJP and the ABVP have been in a similar quandary. Last year, the ABVP retreated into a shell for a while after Rohith Vemula, a Dalit student of University of Hyderabad, committed suicide in the aftermath of a clash between the ABVP and the Ambedkar Students Association, to which Rohith belonged.
The clash occurred in the context of a Union Minister's belief that the university was a den of anti-nationals.
A few weeks after that tragedy, the ABVP became involved in skirmishes with the Left-leaning students of New Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), which the BJP MP, Subramanian Swamy, wanted to be closed down and fumigated.
Now, the scene has shifted to the colleges of the University of Delhi after the ABVP protested against the invitation sent to a JNU student, Umar Khalid, to attend a seminar in Ramjas college. Its objections to Khalid’s presence were that he made anti-national speeches in JNU.
The Hindutva camp's case against the non-saffron students of Hyderabad university, the JNU and the Delhi University is that they use the licence of the freedom of speech to demand "azadi" (freedom) for Kashmir, as in JNU, and, more recently, for Bastar, which is Khalid's special field of study.
Since this demand for "azadi" amounts to subversion – Khalid faces charges of sedition and is currently out on bail – Finance Minister Arun Jaitley has called the non-ABVP groups an "alliance of subversion".
His penchant for these catchy phrases is known. He had called the return of official awards by a section of the intelligentsia last year a "manufactured rebellion".
Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar has said, however, that free speech is okay, but it has to be within a "reasonable legal framework".
What is the legal paradigm? According to the Supreme Court in the Kedar Nath Singh vs the State of Bihar in 1962, “a citizen has the right to say or write whatever he likes about the government or its measures by way of criticism or comment so long as he does not incite people to violence against the government established by law or with the intention of creating public disorder”.
In the context of this judgment, a call for "azadi" is no more than a declamatory outburst as long as there is no violence in its aftermath or public disorder.
Whatever public disorder there has been can be said to be due to the intolerance of those who are unable to accept viewpoints other than their own and, therefore, target the "alliance of subversion" in the name of nationalism.
It is obvious that branding critics as subversives is essentially an intimidatory tactic which becomes all the more menacing if it is wielded by groups associated with the ruling dispensation.
Only the very brave and the ideologically committed can stand up to such threats.
At the same time, since the opposing groups carry political labels, the battles on the campuses are likely to ebb and flow in accordance with the political currents outside.
Besides, there is a distinct possibility that new political personalities will emerge from these skirmishes which will be beneficial for democracy.
(Published in an arrangement with IANS.)