Taking back our universities

The relevant issue today is not which is the good nationalism, inclusive or majoritarian, but whether one can have a democratic polity at all when the domain of civil society is increasingly diminished by the state’s actions

Updated - December 04, 2021 11:03 pm IST

Published - March 09, 2016 02:35 am IST

NEW DELHI,06/09/2013: Students in JNU campus in New Delhi on Friday, Sept 6th 2013. Photo: Meeta Ahlawat

NEW DELHI,06/09/2013: Students in JNU campus in New Delhi on Friday, Sept 6th 2013. Photo: Meeta Ahlawat

The Indian government’s authoritarian menace is generated from within a recognisable structure and network: a Prime Minister at its inspirational font with a long and sordid history of winking at his supporters’ violent crimes; a Home Minister ordering a half-cocked police invasion into a place of learning and ideas for which — to the extent that it comprehends them at all — his government has never had any respect; a familiar background of sinister policy-shaping and mobilising organisations that range from the paramilitary to the cultural spheres; and not least its recently energised laureates of goonish intimidation, young Balillas seeking to disrupt any public meeting in universities that expresses dissent or seeks protection for the country’s wide swathe of vulnerable groups: minorities, Dalits, women, and the working poor.

Akeel Bilgrami

The rise of the ABVP

The last of these, the >Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), a nationwide band of seedy tormentors on the country’s campuses, goes back to the late 1940s, formed in part to fight communist influence in institutions of higher learning. Along with the rest of the Hindu Right, their participation in the movement that opposed the Emergency gave them a moral high ground, a high ground that politicians on the then more powerful Centre-Left surrendered because they lay down like doormats as Indira Gandhi and her immediate circle of advisers stamped on them and the liberties we had taken for granted since Independence.

One might think it is ironic that the ABVP, and the Hindu Right more generally, are now mimicking that very authoritarianism and thereby relinquishing the little moral high ground they had secured by their courageous opposition to the >Emergency . But in fact there is no irony in this. What their current replication of the authoritarianism of the mid-seventies shows rather is that that opposition was never motivated by the higher ideals that were attributed to them. In other words, they never deserved the high ground they gained, in the first place.

In the last twenty-five years (notably coinciding with the years in which neo-liberal economic policies have been embraced) their numbers have grown enormously on campuses; and since the Bharatiya Janata Party’s recent electoral ascendancy they have paraded this numerical strength in the style of the Balilla in >Mussolini’s Italy . These are the visible symptoms of the rise of right-wing nationalism. Someone with more space than I have here should explore the question (whose answer may well lie buried in the parenthesis above) no less relevant in India today than it was in Italy and Germany in the 1930s: what material dislocation, what psychological desolation, what submerged feelings of inferiority, prompt the young to embrace with such aggressive fervour so dark a nationalism as this?

Good and bad nationalism In today’s Europe, which congratulates itself on having lived down its own dark past, even just the prospect of the electoral success of parties representing that form of nationalism has filled the entire spectrum of mainstream politics with dread, while in our country that form of nationalism has not only electorally triumphed but has become the political mainstream. Yet European governments, not to mention the United States, fawn over our Prime Minister as a hero who has opened up vast vistas of new opportunities. What this says about the victory of elite global economic interests over global political morality should be obvious to any alert political observer.

In the aftermath of recent events, some excellent opinion pieces in newspapers have rightly distinguished between such majoritarian nationalism and the inclusive nationalism of Gandhi and Nehru. But right though that distinction generally is, it is not clear why it is relevant in the immediate context when students are being charged with anti-national behaviour. To point out, in this context, that there has been a good nationalism in our past risks the peril of making it seem that a charge of anti-national might have been appropriate if such a good nationalism (instead of Hindu nationalism) were in place. But such a charge is never appropriate. The very category of ‘anti-national’ behaviour is a political and moral outrage.

It may be thought that, unlike, say, >Savarkar ’s nationalism an inclusive nationalism such as Gandhi’s and Nehru’s could not, by its very nature, have even conceived the category of ‘anti-national’. That thought, however, harbours a conflation. Inclusiveness and anti-authoritarianism are both good things. But not all good things are the same good thing.

Striking at civil society In a democratic polity committed to the elementary liberties, no matter which form of nationalism — good or bad — holds sway, any and every person is possessed of the right to ask such questions as: what options do the people of Kashmir have after their suffering over the last three decades, or whether the j >udicial verdict that sent Afzal Guru to his death was justly made. Even so wise a person as Upendra Baxi in a recent opinion piece in The Indian Express begins a sentence defending liberty of speech by saying, “Shouting slogans that are not demonstrably anti-India, and conducting and joining protest marches…” must be legally protected in our universities. But what we should be asking is: what is this category of ‘anti-India’? This is not a notion that national democracies can countenance at all and remain democracies. The idea of someone being accused in a university in Stockholm of being anti-Sweden is laughable. India today and America (mostly in the early 1950s) are quite possibly the only democracies in the world where such a classification of behaviour has conspicuously surfaced. To allow it to be wielded with the zeal that we are presently witnessing is to be set on a path of nothing less than the destruction of our civil society. The issue of immediate relevance today is not which is the good nationalism, inclusive or majoritarian, but whether you can have a democratic polity at all when the domain of civil society, i.e., the domain of collective political life which lies outside the orbit of the state and within which citizens may reflect upon and criticise state policy, is increasingly diminished by the state’s actions. It is a stark perversion of politics that a state, by wilful economic policy, is everywhere surrendering its sovereignty to global finance capital, while bearing down like a thug on its own people who are, in the end, the basis of that sovereignty.

Resistance from below I had said earlier that the ABVP and the entire structure and network from within which it functions is silencing a variety of causes that have surfaced on many campuses, causes that seek to protect vulnerable groups such as minorities, Dalits, women, and the working poor. The inference, then, is obvious. It is precisely and only a coalitional mobilisation of these groups that can offer any serious resistance to their assault. The justly iconic status that >Kanhaiya Kumar has achieved today is not merely because he has stood up to his own government’s attack on universities but because he eloquently represents these causes — and, above all, he represents them in a mode and mentality that should serve as a lesson to political parties and political leaders in the wider electoral field. What I have in mind by this ‘mode and mentality’ is a point of the utmost significance. When someone like Mr. Kumar raises, for instance, the question of caste, he does so not with the mentality of seeking one or other electoral form of gain for one or other party that claims to represent one or other caste, he does so not as a collective bargainer in a field defined by political careerism and sectarian advantage in which those who come out ahead in the bargaining get co-opted into perpetuating the system of caste oppression, he does so with the quite different mentality of wholesale resistance to the very curse of caste, with a view to seeking nothing less than what Ambedkar called the “annihilation” of caste.

It does nothing to diminish the ameliorating achievements of electoral politics of the last two or three decades in the matter of caste, to observe that this offers something entirely fresh in our public life. It should become our common sense, by which I mean it should be a matter of the habits and reflexes of a humane politics. The young men and women in our universities, who have stood and struggled by Mr. Kumar’s side, represent an exemplary political mentality from which our parties and politicians have much to learn. May they grow in every college and university in every corner of the country and take our universities back.

(Akeel Bilgrami is Sidney Morgenbesser Chair in Philosophy, Professor, Committee on Global Thought, and Director, South Asia Institute, Columbia University. His latest book is Secularism, Identity, and Enchantment .)

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