Those who are oblivious or unperturbed about the sedition and felony charges brought against some students of Jawaharlal Nehru University are living in a better world. Important as it is, the media (and the powerful JNU alumni)—traditional, electronic and word of mouth—have made this news assume a larger than life dimension. Heroization of academic vanguardism has many worthy antecedents. While the incidents themselves are still unfolding and contingent, the reactions, abstractions and tales of glory brings a dimension of inevitability—an ironic form of heriozation perhaps? It is not surprising then that the national (and firmly nationalist now) and social media have been completely absent from another dramatic scene that was unfolding in Varanasi simultaneously: around hundred ABVP hooligans disrupted and vandalized a lecture event delivered by the academician, social scientist and Hindi poet Dr. Badri Narayan in Varanasi. Incidentally, he teaches in JNU.
It happened on Valentine’s Day. Dr. Narayan was in Banaras Hindu University’s Art’s Faculty auditorium. He was delivering a special lecture organized in the memory of Late Kamla Prasad. The rubric: ‘Subaltern Societies and Indian Development.’ The Department of Hindi, BHU, was the chief organizer of the event.
On the completion of his talk, Dr. Narayan answered few of the questions raised on the topic and took his seat. At some point Dr. Kashinath Singh, one of the foremost writers of our nation and an esteemed denizen of Varanasi, was delivering his presidential note. At that point the hooligans broke in. They were armed with the tricolour, saffron headbands, garish placards and with images of the soldiers who had recently died in Siachen. There entry and exit were book-ended with two matter-of-fact slogans, bereft of any ideology: ‘Stop the Program’ and ‘Maaro Joota Saale ko’ (Footwaer for the bastard!). Doubtless these rather universal and timeless slogans were directed at Dr. Narayan. While they were at the verge of assailing the stage, vandalize and eventually turn physical with the participants and spectators present there, a few Hindi poets confronted, argued and came together to neutralize the situation. The damage was done though—symbolically and emotionally. It is part of a larger pattern that is unfolding in institutes like BHU. To ponder on that, I take up the quill today.
When ABVP activists ask how BHU dares to invite a professor from JNU who harbours a certain ethos, a political and literary sensibility which is not to their liking, it is in continuation of their condemnation of some other recent events in other parts of the nation, supported by the left and votaries of non-pragmatic identity politics. This is according to the script. What is not is the response: a professor from Hindi department, enlightened the ‘protesting’ students that if any anti-national is or was invoked in some other institute, BHU condemns it. The activists should seek an explanation from the administration as to how BHU dared to invite a professor from such a divisive and schismatic university. This placatory tone is characteristic of how we usually handle a contingent situation at hand: divert attention and make a temporary truce. But what price such quasi reconciliatory and paternalistic truce? One feels it emboldens a pattern in our institutions which has taken us away more and more from deliberative (or directly antagonistic) ways in public life. Even in a communitarian set up that marks a place like Varanasi, it means giving away a precious locational and affective space to an antagonist who is a master player in populist politics.
Anyway, the din and brouhaha carried on for about 15 to 20 minutes. The poetry reading began soon after. Apart from Narayan himself, poets included Vyomesh Shukla, Ashish Tripathi, Anand Pradhan Sharma, Chandrakala Tripathi, Neeraj Khare and Baliraj Pandey. All of them condemned the attack and recited poems, many of which reverberated against fascism, colonialism and religious dictatorship. Only a handful of media houses reported this incident. Seemingly BHU itself has papered over this whole fracas. Life goes on. Or so it seems.
The obvious factual question that can be raised against me is about my assertion that the hooligans were indeed ABVP members. But the fact of the matter is that the disruptors are quite brazen and upfront about it. Such is the level of their confidence in state backed majoritarianism of the kind hitherto unseen. They could target Dr. Narayan so easily because they have seen him on TV debates and there were his posters on the campus. Sources informed that someone had briefed the mobsters about the presence of JNU professor. They would not let go of such golden opportunity to score a point.
Goons/Hooligans: I use such words with some hesitation. But advisedly too. Being judgmental too quickly is not a wise thing to do but not possessing a basic understanding of populist radical values operating in the chowks, mohallahs and premises of our nation is worse. For one, this form of populist universality is far from vague. Populism in our towns are a series of performative acts endowed with a rationality of its own, unto itself. Partly it is globalized aspiration. Partly a constant reconfiguration and unicity around a fictive idea of a mystical nation. Each new and heterogeneous incident and participation symbolically enhances populist reason. Its very mercenary nature allows, what Ernesto Laclau had called, a deeper homogeneity constructed by radical multiplicity of the popular—present as that which is absent. I am therefore using hooligan as a descriptive rather than as a purely pejorative term. The preferable word would be ‘activist’ except that there is no activism that is going on in our campuses and the adjoining areas now. Forms of pure retribution are void of any activist content. Activism does have a different meaning today though. Activism, nowadays, has come to mean treachery—of the nation and pater patria, pure and simple. Such is the level of heightened frenzy in the right voluntarist rhetoric at this point of time. It will be an important task for the social scientist to recalibrate and chart the very idea of activism in new India.
As the left ideology in Varanasi – the constituency of Narendra Modi – has shrunk to sporadic protests at the BHU gate and burning effigies of rightwing and elite secular politicians, it has also lost its credentials within the campus. One cannot take on abject kowtowing and administrative excesses unless one is sure about ones own footing. A selective form of Section 144 is in action which stops student groups from organizing political activities, marches and protests. But seemingly, such forms of legality is enforceable only for anti-right forces. That ABVP could create this ruckus and get away with it, is a living of proof such selective enforcement. RSS has been running Shakhas and their marches inside the campus, unruffled.
But the crucial question is about self regulation and placatory politics. Why left movement in BHU – primarily under the aegis of Bhagat Singh Chhatra Morcha (BCM) and AISA – is not bothering themselves to go against the University administration? Similar is the case with the NSUI activists. Why don’t they seek explanations from the officials about specificities of certain laws? The answer is simple. The left is scattered, unsure and largely irrelevant in UP. Student politics in UP is largely based on Samajwadi Party backed socialist students’ movements and the antics of ABVP. And in both of these forms, violence is the key factor which decides who positions of power. The myths of Lockean toleration and Weberian rationalization has either to be constructed anew or abandoned altogether. Arguments, if they at all happen in our polity, does not rely on Dharma or Ashokan edicts as Peter D’souza or Rajiv Bhargava would have us believe respectively. Only a hardcore realist sensibility can bring back idealism in whatever one might call the absent forms of radical politics.
To be honest, there is no such thing as student union in BHU. As a plaything of the university administration, there is one student council. The laws for council election are formulated in such a way that political mobilization can never happen in the university premises. But as I have said, the establishment works in covert and overt ways by surrogating it through ABVP plans and programs. The Trojan form of right radical politics has entered BHU which will brook no opposition. Period.
This attack on Badri Narayan cannot be seen in the light of one more attack on things that symbolize JNU. It is an attack on a way of looking and effecting popular forms and movement of politics instead of the populist. After his lecture, I had put two questions to Dr. Narayan. I asked him why populist radical politics now pits itself against the subalterns and religious minorities and why popular subaltern (left or certain identity politics) is actually moving away from subaltern movements? Dr. Narayan did not provide me with any answer but the ABVP does. It iterates every single day with every small and large gesture that no other movement has any validity save the one around this absent present form of morphed nationalism. The word sedition is not just a legal term anymore. It is part of a populist reason. So also is treason. One can go back in history for this logic—from Fanon’s insights to the Dreyfus affair in France. I come back to issue of self regulation and skirting even in Dalit and minority mobilization in my part of the world. The terrain is shifting and we are allowing that willy nilly. The state is in perfect sync with radical right-wing sentiments of our populace. Sedition and the idea of ‘droh’ can be logically connected to a very old idea of Desh, one that can be traced to nineteenth century. Its forms are only morphing virulently.
An year back, Jamaat-e-Islaami Hind’s student wing Students Islamic Organization of India(SIO) organized a seminar on communal harmony in collaboration with RSS at BHU. Since SIO and JIH urged that RSS has to be brought into the fold for any discussion on communal harmony, they were naturally against calling RSS a communal organization. This happened when Prof. Kamal Kishor Mishra of the Social Science Department at BHU had staged this event which had otherwise raised significant concerns over recent Muslim issues. It is this coming together of JIH and RSS that is becoming naturalized in our everyday discourse. Gradually but surely. The older ideas of left radical politics are turning cautious and pragmatic day by day. RSS is unambiguous and public about its politics. Therefore, if BHU or any other institution or political group calls RSS secular and ‘nationalist’, the onus lie on them. Not on populist mobilization. Making RSS a stakeholder in political brokerage will only help our nation naturalize forms of homo hierarchicus coupled with a politics of consumption .
As everyone knows, Sandip Pandey, Magsaysay awardee was recently removed from IIT-BHU where he was serving as a guest lecturer. The charges were boringly similar: anti-university and anti-national. In a public conference, Pandey alleged that this action was influenced by RSS. And RSS never came forward to counter Pandey’s allegations. This makes a journalist’s job easy.
The Indian institutes are often categorized based on what lexicon the State provides. Which eventually becomes a projection of sorts. JNU as anti-national and BHU as pro-Hindu, for instance. Or TISS as a Dalit school. But JNU, thanks to its mobilizations and reach, can counter this rubric by putting forth contesting ideas of the university. It is able to counter categorizations and pigeonholes even during the times of its worst nightmare. BHU, as State’s tool, must counter this anti-nationalist idea that universities like JNU or HCU stand for at this point of time. The State will mobilize BHU to that end. And we can do very little. For the maneuvering space is quite narrow. And the consequences of putting any alternative position are swift and dire.
Universities like BHU must follow with utmost dedication the diktats of our tough new nation and its popular will.
Siddhant Mohan is a journalist and poet from Varanasi.