Break Down the Barriers: Reading Robin T, Bhimrao and the Nation State in JNU

Jai Bhim, Joy Guru, Lal Salaam

Two of the greatest, crazies, most beautiful minds produced by the Indian subcontinent in the Twentieth Century would have been arrested by the police and attacked by the RSS, as ‘Anti-Nationals’, perhaps rightly so, had they been alive today.After all, they never stopped being young.


The Young Ambedkar
The Young Ambedkar

One of them was tall, you know him – the big guy, with  glasses, always dressed to the nines, (no itchy khadi or scratchy khaki would do for him) .

The Young Tagore

The other had long hair and a beard, and even became a contemporary artist in his old age.

The cops, or thugs-in-law of the RSS might even have said “saala JNU ka lagta hai” (looks like this ***** is from JNU).

So, here they are – Bhimrao Ambedkar (Baba Saheb), and Rabindranath Tagore.

Once again, Jai Bhim, Joy Guru. And pass the ammunition.

Let’s read them, let’s listen to them. Let’s think with them. Let’s laugh with them at the Chaddi-Buddies. Let’s breath in their rage at injustice and attempts to snatch our freedom away. Lets learn what respect and solidarity means from them. Let’s turn them around from being mere dead icons  (like Rohith Vemula did with Ambedkar) and make them come alive as our friends, our comrades. And guess what, they even have universities made in their memory, which makes our job all that much easier, and that of our enemies all that much harder. Let some right-wing idiot try suggesting that you should not name a university after Ambedkar now (they did though, once, in Marathwada, when the Shiv-Sena – junior partner to the BJP in the central government and in Maharashtra – thought that Dr. Ambedkar was too impure a person to name a university after, and was happy to lead rioting mobs, under police protection that raped and killed Dalits and set fire to Dalit homes, but that’s a long story.)

So here they are. Two fragments.

First, Bhima.

“In this republic, there is no place for democracy. There is no room for equality. There is no room for liberty and there is no room for fraternity. The Indian village is the very negation of the republic. If it is a republic, it is a republic of the Touchables, by the Touchables and for the Touchables. The republic is an empire of the Hindus over the touchable. It is a kind of colonialism of the Hindus designed to exploit the Untouchables. The untouchables have no rights. They are there only to wait, serve and submit. They are there to do or to die. They have no rights because they are outside the village republic and because they are outside the so-called Republic, they are outside the Hindu fold. That is a vicious circle. But this is a fact which cannot be gainsaid.”

Bhimrao Ambedkar, Outside the Fold

And then, Robin T.

I am not against one nation in particular, but against the general idea of all nations. What is the nation?

It is the aspect of a whole people as an organized power. This organization incessantly keeps up the insistence of the population on becoming strong and efficient. But this strenuous effort after strength and efficiency drains mans energy from this higher nature where he is self sacrificing and creative.

For thereby man’s power of sacrifice is diverted from his ultimate object, which is moral, to the maintenance of his organization, which is mechanical. Yet in this he feels all the satisfaction of moral exaltation and therefore becomes supremely dangerous to humanity. He feels relieved of the urgings of his conscience when he can transfer his responsibility to this machine which is not the creation of his intellect and not of his complete moral personality. By this device the person who loves freedom perpetuates slavery in a large portion of the world with the comfortable feeling of pride of having done its duty; men who are naturally just can be cruelly unjust while both in their act and in their thought, accompanied by a feeling that they are helping the world in receiving its deserts; men who are honest can go on blindly robbing others of their human rights for self-aggrandizement, all the while abusing the deprived for not deserving better treatment.

Nationalism is a great menace. It is the particular thing which has been at the bottom of India’s troubles.

Rabindranath Tagore, On Nationalism in India

When I read Ambedkar and Tagore, I recognize, very clearly, why I am what the RSS would call an ‘anti-national’. But so would the Hurriyat(s) in Kashmir, because they would find my skepticism about the state forms that they rehearse in their minds  just as repugnant as do their occupiers . And sorry, don’t give me that stuff about the nationalisms of oppressed peoples as being better than the nationalism of oppressors, I just don’t buy it. Geelani wali Azadi can never be a Meethi-Meethi Azaadi. Because every state in waiting  wants to be just as oppressive as every waxing or waning state. If you want a meethi-meethi Azaadi, wherever you are, you have to start thinking very hard, and working your imagination and your reason and all your passions to find ways out of the prison of the state-form, and come up with visions of human solidarity that do not require standing armies and prisons. You might say to me, that is not practical, not of immediate relevance, without any strategic or political significance. And I will agree with you. But I will also remind you of the fact that you are in universities, in colleges and research institutions, in JNU, in Jamia, in Jadavpur, in Jaipur, in Jallandar, in Jorhat, in Jammu, in Joka and wherever else you may be. And in universities one is supposed to think about things that may not have immediate relevance, like what is happening in galaxies light years away from us (remember Rohith Vemula’s love for the stars), or in cultures that got buried under the sand five thousand years ago, or on the conditions that formed the early earth, or what it is like to ben on mountains thousands of feet below sea level. That is why a university is called a university, it is so that the entire universe, no matter how far away, or how close, or how remote in time, or possibility, may be thought about, robustly. It is so that the mind may be without fear, (even to imagine the currently unimaginable) as Robin T, said, and the head held high (so that distant horizons may become visible).

Once upon a time, it was impossible to imagine societies without slavery or caste, or where men and women could be seen as equal. It was the free thinking of many people in conversation with each other that contributed to the actualization of these possibilities. That is what a university is – the free thinking of men and women of different generations in conversation with each other. Someday, people in universities of the future, may study us, you and me, as historical evidence for the development of the kind of politics that made standing armies, borders, police, prisons,  passports,  caste barriers, patriarchal nuclear families and wage labour redundant and unnecessary. They may look back at our time with faint amusement, especially at the fact that we were called ‘anti-national’, regardless of whether we were or were not. What is radical today may be common sense tomorrow. That is what happens. That is what universities are for – to think the necessarily unthinkable and to give it room to breathe. Which is why, the knee jerk raising of aggressive slogans , whether in JNU, Jamia or Jadavpur of (the only seemingly opposed) Indian and Kashmiri versions of the same soiled rag of ultra-nationalist divisiveness by students who have the opportunity, to soar much higher in their thinking needs to be seen for what it is – an annoying distraction that takes us all away from the real job at hand. This is the ‘high work’, the mountaineering of the mind, which is to think seriously about the kind of space we want for our lives, and for the lives of the future, to flourish in. To do this you have to be actually radical, you can’t just pretend to be radical, by raising what you think is the most provocative slogan of the moment (which provokes nothing but repression on everyone). You may do so, and if you do and are put in prison for it, we will still fight for your liberty, because even fools deserve to be free. But once you face us again, regardless of whether you speak for the absent realities of Bharat Mata or Azad Kashmir, you will have to face our relentless criticism.

Do you, can you, have a vision that leaves prisons behind?

They (the nationalists) define the nation as a walled in prison and themselves as the jailers instead of others. We want to smash prisons (and the prisons currently called factories) and build gardens and orchards in them. That is why the leaderships of most national liberation movements enthusiastically adapt the entire coercive machinery left behind by their occupiers to their own advantage after the rituals of ‘transfer of power’ are done. That is why the sedition laws made by the British colonial authorities were so carefully preserved and marinated by Indian freedom fighters once they came to power. I am sure that many Kashmir nationalists dream of what they will do with Indian sedition laws once the Indian state leaves the valley – perhaps just give it an additional patina of blasphemy to make it look all dressed up, all new. All they want to do, really, is to give their prisons a fresh coat of paint. Ambedkar and Tagore give us one set of keys with which to jailbreak this prison.There are other keys as well, that  we could look at later, at leisure, but now that things are hot and urgent, and our friends Bhima and Robin are close at hand, we’ll see what they have to offer.

Ambedkar even gives us a few keys in that book they called the Constitution, like the fundamental rights, rights to free speech and assembly, to equality with which you can open the locks scattered all over its other pages. Let’s learn to pick those locks. Both Ambedkar and Tagore loved this land, they were super deluxe extra cool Desh Premis, they took risks for their love, they went that extra mile. Tagore organized hugely to free political prisoners in the 1930s,  even while Mohandas Gandhi looked the other way, spinning his charkha. Ambedkar was asking people to leave the very way of life that Golwalkar wanted to shackle people into.  Their love of the land and its people, their desire for justice and liberty made sure that they were never Bhakts, neither of a map, nor of anything else that could made human beings look small. Because, as we know,  its one thing to love, to be a premi, an ashiq, and quite another to be a boring bhakt.

When my mother, for instance, says ‘desh‘, meaning land, in the language that she learnt from Tagore, she speaks of her village by a river, and then other rivers, and she speaks of her journey, of her world, of the world. That village and this vision of the world do not have armies, do not have prisons, do not need sedition laws to protect them. I learnt to think about desh from her. I hope that chain of learning new and old meanings for old and new words can carry on. We don’t need to learn that lesson from the RSS and their good boys in the ABVP. We don’t need to learn it from the minister who was never a student, not really.

I know a land, many lands, without barriers, without borders, but with rivers, coastlines, forests and mountains, and many kinds of speech, many histories, many memories, many legends and secrets that are far older than anything that the RSS can even imagine. I know a way of thinking about lands that makes Rajnath Singh’s version of history and geography look and sound like what it is – a fake tweet. Something we should laugh about with our grandchildren fifty years from now.

When I think of a land I think of a past when the land did not have a state sitting on it like a dead weight. I imagine a future when that dead weight will have lifted and given way to other ways of imagining how people might live together and make the world. Try it, its easy. It’s even seductive, which some Sanghis correctly think is the same thing as sedition.

That makes me love the land, it makes me, perhaps a lover, not a bhakt, a desh-premi, not a desh-bhakt. Like Ambedkar and Tagore it makes me rise, it does not make me submit. It makes me laugh and love and live. It does not make me yield. And nothing says that you have to have only one love in your life, not even at any one given time (Robin T was never that dull). Our hearts and our minds don’t have to be as stingy as some pathetic pativrata/patnivrata hero or heroine from a bad, sad movie. Let’s be the bad girls and the bad boys. Lets have fun with our time and our destinies. Lets make the RSS quake with fear because we are having such a fucking good time.

There is one thing though, we must always sing, and dance, while we are at it. Even, no especially, when we are on strike. So I leave you with a song. Some rocking Robin T, in an updated remix, from the recent film version (by ‘Q’) of Tagore’s anarchist operetta – ‘Tasher Desh’, which is quite appropriate, because what is this regime but a house of cards?  All it requires is a gentle nudge, even a well timed breath, and it will come tumbling down and be undone, like a bad dream.

Enjoy. If you are in Delhi, see you on Thursday – for the big public march in support of JNU at 2:00 PM – from Mandi House to Jantar Mantar.

Bandh Bhengey Dao – Break all the Barriers – Song from ‘Tasher Desh’ (Card Country), based on lyrics and music by Rabindranath Tagore, from the Original Sound Track of the Film ‘Tasher Desh’ by Q. Found on Youtube.

And learn to sing this revolutionary song ! :)





5 thoughts on “Break Down the Barriers: Reading Robin T, Bhimrao and the Nation State in JNU”

  1. What a greatest man he was. Every word of his is inspiring me a lot. I lost my entire life without reading Babasaheb. I used to say my sc/st friends in my office that Ambedkar is Your god because of he granted reservations to you. They thought that reservations for sc/st granted by Indira, so they saw me differently.
    But everytime I read Ambedkar I recall my schoolmate (up to 7th class) Gopal.
    Gopal is very clever than me. But, but he was a mahar.
    I can’t see him from 7th class middle onwards. Now I imagine that poverty thrown my friend away. In my office I always recall his images in my new colleagues.
    How will the India if Ambedkar saab first PM of India?
    Brahmins know this. So they cleverly deviding society in to religious lines so that Dalit & sudras can’t spend time thinking about brahmin.
    Iam with Dalit as my real brother. How can I serve for our cause at this retired age?Did I?

  2. Bad comparison.One was a great revolutionary and was discredited in his times.Other was neither a leader and was busy in spiritual stupidities.Babasaheb is simply incomparable and a true human being.

  3. Actually ‘anti-national’ is nothing but ‘anti-rss’. They do not have the guts to say that they label a person anti-national is in fact, anti-rss. By citing the grounds of anti!national, they can arrest and imprison all and sundry, but, if they openly declare the grounds of arrest is ‘anti-Rss’, that would be ablatently ultravires the constitution. Sox they want to be ‘constitutionally illegal’ in their scheme of things.

  4. wonderful….. The only nuance wish to add (at the risk of sounding `heavy’ in the midst of what is blithe and light) is that to reject `stinginess’ is also to experience a loving that can plumb the depths of what is unique in each love, including bonds that nourish with an exclusiveness that does not dissipate into fun in the pejorative sense of being `mere fun’…..

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