Dear Student from CDS who pasted the posters criticising our collective effort to stand with JNU
I write in response to the views that you expressed on those posters. First of all, let me tell you how much I’d have appreciated if you expressed those views openly right from the beginning, so that we could have had a proper debate. I do wish we stopped scribbling comments on each others’ posters – this is an open campus, and surely, we don’t practice the Sangh Parivar’s intolerance of a contrary opinion. No one, I assure you, will harm you in any way, and I am sure all my fellow teachers, students, and non-teaching staff will join me in assuring you thus.
Nevertheless, let me try and make a beginning in opening a discussion with you. I start with the manner in which you implicitly reduce the confrontation at JNU to a conflict between the CPM and the BJP, a sort of blown-up version of what we see in Kannur. I am not surprised by this reduction, for this is exactly what the BJP leaders in Kerala have been trying to claim, but I am sorry that it is a totally invalid reduction. The fight against the BJP government’s violent intrusion at JNU is about several things – about the question of academic freedoms – of debate, expression, and thought; about the role of the state in running universities and university autonomy; about the use of nationalist rhetoric to shout down opponents and cover up inconvenient truths; about the role of mobs in suppressing academic life and policing political life in universities; about the manner in which Muslim students are perceived in situations of conflict; about the question of regions like Kashmir and the North-East where the Indian army has established a brutal presence. And, for sure, these questions came up in the first place in a wake of a tsunami-life wave of angry questions generated by state violence against Dalit students in IIT-Madras and HCU. The Kerala State BJP leaders played the best card they had: they tried to reduce all this to a form of violence that Malayalis are tired of and condemn universally, the unspeakable mutual murder in Kannur.
If you do not see this, then I, as your teacher, have only myself to blame, because I have probably been unsuccessful in teaching you to think. No one who has had the smallest introduction to critical thinking can chop off so many dimensions of an emergent phenomenon, all empirically verifiable, and plant his or her belief in a sorry reduction. I am also ashamed because I have obviously failed to instill you the kind of moral courage that would have made you flinch from rendering others invisible. For, when you reduce this to a fight between BJP and CPM, are you not rendering me, your teacher with who you have had long, friendly discussions over the past one year, totally invisible? I am well-known (or notorious) in Kerala for being brutally critical of the CPM and the Congress, equally. I have never cringed, at any phase of my life, n front of any politician, ever, for any kind of favour i. You know this. You know that people like me who are not CPM partisans, find this a life-and-death struggle precisely because those of us who have no party-backing are the ones who can be easily gagged, bludgeoned, or even murdered by the combination of mob-and-police violence backed by the BJP government – and you would still parrot the BJP Kerala leadership’s reduction that essentially renders independent voices like mine unheard?
Secondly, you say that we should not support people who want to break up our country. Here, I want to know which India you are referring to? Is it that of the Hindutvavaadi upper caste right wing’s, where only the savarna middle class can have any say besides the predatory capitalists hand in glove with global blood-suckers? Or is the India that we at CDS cherish – the India of the majority poor, of the underprivileged who bear brutal exploitation, women denied their rights, lower caste people denied humanity, Muslim people reduced to poverty and vicious stereotypes, of adivasis, coastal people, nomadic communities, all of who count as nothing but prey in the eyes of the present government?
I say, I WILL challenge the privileges of the first in the name of the second! You may say that what you meant was about supporting Kashmiris who demand Azaadi. Again, I hang my head in shame as the teacher who failed to instill in you the lesson that before we take a view on an issue, we must consider the longer histories that shaped the issue, and that we should do this independently, relying on good, thorough scholarship that follows the protocols of critical and rational thinking and research. For if I had done that, you would have considered the large body of excellent research that tells you about the shaping of Kashmiri Azaadi before passing judgments so easily!
I curse myself that I have not been able to arouse in you empathy for the diverse peoples of India – for if you were empathetic, you would have been curious to know why so many people, people like you and me, seem to find that slogan attractive – you would have made that effort even when you disagreed with them. And you do have Kashmiri colleagues – wonderful young people – who are surely like or better and braver than you and me, Malayalis both. If there are Kashmiris who seek to break up the country, then there must be a reason why they want to do so – unless you claim that they are brutes, as many of your political preferences claim. I do hope you will not do that – that is usually the bare minimum produced by exposure to places like CDS or JNU or HCU. If there are reasons, they need to be debated. If there is anger, it needs to be expressed in non-violent ways, and it is only the present-day middle-class deep depoliticisation that makes them feel that expressing such anger in the form of slogan-shouting is tantamount to violence. Again, I have failed in teaching you to gain self-distance from the self-blindness of the fattened Indian middle-class – surely my failing, mine alone.
Thirdly, you say that we are free to criticise the BJP or the RSS in everything except nationalism. But is that not an impossible demand? For, right from the beginning, has not the Sangh Parivar deployed its understanding of India to justify all its violent acts and its sanctioning of ever-more-terrifying exploitation? Has it not used it to justify shrinking privacy of citizens? Indeed, this kind of highly exclusionary nationalism is the ideology of the Sangh Parivar and how is one to criticise the BJP without criticising its nationalism?
Lastly, you mention in your poster that you do not want to reveal yourself for the fear of becoming an ‘outcast’ – ‘outcaste’, did you mean? I urge you to think of the origins of the word, and what made you choose it in this context. Maybe that reflection will make you more empathetic to what dalit students go through in their lives .. maybe you will make more sense of battling daily humiliations and denial of full membership in humanity. I have already assured you that we will not exclude you in any way, but how I wish you would take seriously the mountain of government-collected statistics that show that caste IS still, a major, major axis of social exclusion in India! Again, who else can I blame but myself? As teachers, we taught you how to read statistics and other material that reveals the state of our society, but we probably failed in convincing you to take it seriously!
All I can say, in sum, is that your posters spoke more about my failings as a teacher than of your failings as a student. But I do hope I can do better, and I will keep trying.
With much love,