Guest Post by RAJARSHI DASGUPTA
[ This post by Rajarshi Dasgupta continues the debate with Ranabir Samaddar’s piece on the character of the students’ movement that has begun in Jadavpur University which was published recently in DNA, also critiqued in a recent post in Kafila by Uditi Sen ]
Nobody knows why social science routinely condemns the lack of radicalism in society when social scientists with radical pasts so easily dismiss new radicalisms as harmful and shallow. I was attending a meeting on students’ politics in the campus I work on the other night, when some colleagues, who have long been part of progressive politics since their student life, voiced such sentiments. I was struck by the arguments they made against what they saw as merely fancy and passing fashion. They were rather similar to a set of arguments made by an older generation of teachers about my colleagues when they were young and radical students. I think these arguments are worth a little discussion since they show something like a pattern that is predictable to some extent, and which may reveal a more uneasy relationship between social science scholarship and social transformation than we usually care to admit. They also have a deep affinity with the criticisms aired about the recent students’ unrest in Jadavpur university, by Ranabir Samaddar among others. Unlike some who have written in support of the students, there are senior scholars like Samaddar who have expressed profound and serious misgivings that must be tackled head on. I will argue in the following that such misgivings result from a muddle of liberal and leftist understanding of the student’s place and the academy’s role in society. A more clear understanding becomes possible, incidentally, in this case, if one returns to a basic capitalist framing of the university.
Before we go there, however, let us look at the flavor of general criticisms for moment. Some of these suggest a personality type – the protesting students are seen as self-centered, coming from privileged backgrounds and seeking even more privilege. They are taking undue advantage of being articulate with necessary social capital and comfortable access to social media. Some are simply making merry with song and dance, intoxication and noise, but there is no real class issue or social concern behind these performances and catchy slogans. It will either peter out or lead to serious damages. Unless, realizing their shortcomings, the students pay heed to those who speak from their experience of making similar mistakes in the past. It is not difficult to sense a parental anxiety here – but is it not easier to recognize the intent of authority? The message is certainly not very coherent. Are we being told that those who are selfish and privileged are logically drawn to the politics of protest, to facing lathi-charge and police cases, to provoking and challenging the authority? Is it the case that those defending the authority and attacking the protesting students are selfless seekers of knowledge forsaking privilege? If that sounds oddly twisted, even more confounding arguments follow. I feel not only dismayed with the pastoral tone that launches into a moral denunciation of students as a sufficient ground to undermine their specific demands, indeed, to ignore their demands completely. I also feel deeply troubled by the precarious finesse that becomes necessary to salvage some radical credit for a sensibility that has learnt better with time. The sixties were ‘real’ to thinkers like Samaddar, which had truly social concerns. Really? Why then do these points ring so familiar? Is it not because we can cut and paste more or less the same words of moral unease into what the official left had to say about the students’ movements in the nineteen sixties?
To be sure, let us look more specifically at how Samaddar treats the students movement: a petty issue incensing a ‘chattering elite’, that has backing in social media but does not represent the lower classes, who are with the ruling regime. There is a larger threat of BJP’s rise that Samaddar thinks the students might help by discrediting the current regime. He may not have realized that this larger reason has been way too long milked by the Congress at the national level to have a serious purchase. But some of his other assumptions are downright difficult to agree with.
One, that the social background of a leader and some second rung leaders of a party is a clear index of the social class whose interests the party represents.
I am not so confident that an argument that suggests that the TMC represents subaltern interests merely because Mamata Bannerjee appears to have a ‘common touch’ can withstand serious scrutiny. Class Interest are not the automatic coefficients of provenance, or of the idioms of utterance and appearance invoked and deployed by an intelligent politician. Sometimes the handy identification of broad sections of the population with power that a populist leader enables through these markings of origin, demeanor, vocabulary and appearance can be the best disguise for a consolidation of the interests of a ruling elite. Does Samaddar really believe that the TMC represents broad non-elite interests simply because Mamata Bannerjee is the chief minister of West Bangal ?
In that case, will Prof. Samaddar also now accept that the ‘Modified’ myth that a man of humble, non-metropolitan origins in occupation of the prime ministers chair (a phenomenon true of both Narendra Modi and his predecessor Manmohan Singh) is a sign of the exponential democratization of Raisina Hill ?
Two, it is not possible to accept invitations for a democratic dialogue which have no tolerance for chatter. I will not go into how its reception is subjective and what chatter might signal, which I have tried elsewhere. but I don’t want to imagine what meaning our democracy will take in the absence of chatter. It is entirely possible that academics may have to start looking for other kinds of jobs. Three, I cannot accept that increasing instances of violence on women, their murder, assault, rape and molestation, the question of their safety in public space at a time when they are joining the workforce in large numbers, is not an appropriate social or political concern. Samaddar’s refusal to recognize it is all the more mystifying given how much his research collective is devoted to precisely these questions. Perhaps he thinks it is better to patiently study these issues and slowly build up public opinion rather than immediately stir up a popular movement. Perhaps scholarship can achieve where movements fail. So adieu to politics, let us leave it to elites, welcome to social science, it teaches us prudence.
But wait a minute. Who do we have in mind when we say ‘elite’ in the students’ context? The critics are of course saying it in a leftist sense, but it has an added polemical charge in the political language spoken in West Bengal. To be called ‘elite’ is an especially mean insult for a radical who is most often recruited from the middle classes – it puts her entire integrity on stake. Understandably, it is a common insult even exchanged as joke at times. A dear friend of mine told me about similar things in Kerala: how a little boy would run in tears to complaint to elders that he has been called ‘pettybourgeois’ by his friends. Thus, given that one can use the word elite as a simple description or as an insult for suspect radicalism, we must know which sense applies to the case of students. The problem is that a simple description does not work here. Jadavpur university is clearly a leading academic institution, better than many others across the state. But this does not mean that academically better status naturally corresponds to better economic status, often to the contrary. Growing up nearby I have known many engineering and humanities students from Jadavpur from very modest backgrounds who would frantically teach throughout the week to make enough money to meet hostel expenses, living entirely on idealism apart from the occasional tea. They came from far and near, mofussil towns, districts and other states, some affluent, others hard by, all looking for a future in the city. Did they want to become elite? Sure, why not. But were they elite? I don’t think so. Many were migrating from one place to another, one class to another, one kind of sociability to another, looking to make most of that opportunity. Remembering them I cannot be sure who will better fit the bill of elitism – they or their critics. Is it then pitched in the other, joking and insulting sense, that the students are being called elite?
Let me come back to the university I work in. The meaning of the word elite in this campus is not too distant from the sense I tried to explain above. Both ‘bourgeois’ and ‘elite’ are considered insults here, even when those living outside the campus may have their own reasons to consider elite the entire population residing inside the campus. While it has some truth in this relative sense, I believe it entirely misses out the real experience of being a student in a public university. Contrary to our protestations that such a space provides enlightenment and emancipation, the common student’s experience increasingly seems a desperate struggle against sinking conditions, coping with anxiety and depression, constant pressure to earn, to marry, to survive in the city, to even get an ad hoc job or the odd research assistance, grateful for every window of opportunity. Awards and scholarships are very often inadequate and painfully slow in reaching the needy students. Books are forbiddingly expensive and photocopies involve breaking the law. Best of all, very few among the general public show any positive regard for a student or young scholar – they are at the bottom rung of the job market and of the social pecking order. In a nutshell, there is not much value, at least in immediate sense, of student life in a public university of this country, especially doing social science. Yet social scientists are happy to call them elite and privileged, mock those modes of socialization where they can escape social hierarchies, discipline them with a little help from the police, monitor their recreation and sex life, and register only chatter or noise when they make political demands. Practically speaking, there is no gulf of difference between this and a working class life in the city, apart from a certain degree of illusion provided by the world of ideas for better or worse. In a real and substantive sense we are looking at the working classes when we see students, teaching them skills like a good old ideological state apparatus and selling wage slavery as freedom. The public university, as it exists, is not very different from a factory workshop where against meager pays apprentices are trained to adjust their lives to the fluctuating production rhythm, which is growing ever so flexible under the neoliberal economy. It will be nothing short of a travesty if social scientists decide to call this section a ‘chattering elite’. It may be even more fatal to ignore and misunderstand their political acts. This way, that day may not be very far when they bid goodbye to social science and plunge into the political as the only hope. What we say after that will not matter a jot. What they say will. Is it too much to expect that social science begins to rethink the social? Is it too late to expect political science begins to rethink what is political? The signals are there to see, unless we are sleeping away, nestled in the comfort of opinions palmed off as social science.
See also, #Hokkolorob – The Politics of Making Noise by Rajarshi Dasgupta, earlier on Kafila
Rajarshi Dasgupta is an Assistant Professor at the Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi