Questions over exchange between Spivak, student at JNU seminar

Following the incident, 28-year-old Anshul Kumar put up a poster in protest outside the auditorium where the talk was held, which read: “If the subaltern can’t speak, he shall abuse!”

Updated - May 22, 2024 10:58 pm IST

Published - May 22, 2024 09:55 pm IST - New Delhi

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

A video of a Dalit student being interrupted while attempting to ask scholar Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak a question after her talk at the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in New Delhi has raised questions on ways of engaging with students at academic seminars.

The student, who wanted to ask Ms. Spivak about her positioning herself as middle class, could not do so, as she interrupted him over his pronunciation of American sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois’ last name and seemingly took issue with him for introducing himself as the “Founding Professor of the Centre for Brahmin Studies”, according to multiple people who attended the talk on Tuesday.

Following the incident, the M.A. (Sociology) student at the Centre for the Study of Social Systems, 28-year-old Anshul Kumar, put up a poster in protest outside the auditorium where the talk was held, which read: “If the subaltern can’t speak, he shall abuse!”, with an expletive added to it – a play on one of Ms. Spivak’s most-read essays ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’.

Within 24 hours of the video going viral, criticism of Mr. Kumar on social media has focused on the language he used for Ms. Spivak since the incident. Mr. Kumar has said that the crowd and Ms. Spivak seemed to have missed the point he was trying to make when he introduced himself as he did. The point, he explained, was that there were scores of centres for Dalit studies that had been ‘co-opted’ by upper-caste academics, who then gate-kept the space. “What the subject of interrogations should be, instead, is Brahminism itself,” he said.

On the criticism over the language he has used since the incident, Mr. Kumar told The Hindu, “That is how the subaltern speaks. They should be ready to listen... this tone-policing cannot be done.”

Ms. Spivak has not yet responded to The Hindu’s questions over the incident.

In the hours since the controversy, Mr. Kumar has been using quotes from Du Bois’ works to argue on social media that subaltern voices should not be dismissed because of technicalities of “syntactical obedience”.

An informal collective of students at the JNU’s Centre for Political Studies had organised the talk on Du Bois and his vision of democracy. The second person to be allowed to ask a question after her talk, Mr. Kumar wanted to ask Ms. Spivak about her background. “Spivak claims to be middle class. She said in her lecture that Du Bois was an upper-class elite. How is she as a great granddaughter of Bihari Lal Bhaduri, a close friend of Ishvar Chandr Vidyasagar, supposed to be middle class,” he wanted to ask.

“Even as I started to frame my question, she rudely asked me, ‘Who are you?’ Then I introduced myself as I did and was continuing. But the moment I said ‘Du Bois’ the way I did, she kept interrupting me on that point, talking down to me. Nobody stood against her or stopped her. Everyone was laughing. I can’t stand this kind of disrespect,” Mr. Kumar, the first in his family to attend a Tier-1 educational institute, told The Hindu.

In the video that went viral on social media, Ms. Spivak can be heard telling Mr. Kumar that it is expected of him to know the background of a scholar’s work before bringing it up or talking about it – and more so if the scholar was as celebrated and renowned as Du Bois. At one point, Mr. Kumar can be heard shooting back, “If the trivialities are done, I can proceed with my question”.

“What she (Spivak) was alluding to was the history of Du Bois choosing to pronounce his name in a certain way that defied the sensibilities of the modern French language,” explained Sandhya Devesan, an assistant professor at Delhi University who had attended the talk.

But she, and students who were present at the lecture, told The Hindu that Ms. Spivak never explicitly mentioned this context while insisting throughout the talk that the audience pronounce the name correctly.

Further, many who were at the talk reckoned that Ms. Spivak’s “high-handed” reaction to Mr. Kumar was partly because of a miscommunication when he introduced himself as the founder of the “Centre for Brahmin Studies”.

“What is particularly ironic is that Spivak, while being particular about wanting to speak to the subaltern, could not herself recognise the semiotics of the subaltern from a Dalit caste background. She was right in wanting to maintain Du Bois’ own claim over his name as a Black writer of eminence, but so is the person wanting to raise a question at a seminar, without having to fear being ridiculed,” Ms. Devesan said.

Several Dalit activists on social media have called out Mr. Kumar over the language he has used for being misogynist, while also condemning the way he was treated at the talk’s Q&A session.  

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