A Close Look at Certain Words Allegedly Shouted Recently in JNU and Their Impact on Our National Intelligence: Soumyabrata Choudhury

This is a guest post by Soumyabrata Choudhury

Polonius: “What is it you read, my lord?”

Hamlet in New Delhi, 2016: “India, Pakistan, security, sovereignty, nation, anti-national…words, words, words”

According to Sigmund Freud, when we dream, and when we suffer psychotic delusions, we treat words as pictures and things. A word’s meaning, in these conditions, becomes the shape of the word and its appearance is the same as feeling its physical impact, its blow. We cannot grasp anymore that a word refers to an object or idea outside in the world or that it can be used as a metaphor or an indirect analogy and image. We cannot even receive the rhetorical communication of words intended to persuade, exhort, transgress or insult. In each of these communications intended by an addresser we already feel physically, viscerally and as a consequence, mentally under the assault of the words of the addresser as if they are blows.

So in response we don’t persuade, exhort, transgress or insult back but instead, we curse (the upper limit of lucid  discourse in this state), punch, grab the addresser  by the throat, pull a knife or gun if we have any of these articles in our possession – or we cringe, weep, hold our heads in our hands and rock to and fro. Now it is very unlikely that in a real psychotic condition, we are able to invoke a particular law or clause of law in our favor, complain to the police and come up with a fluent image of language as justification for our actions. “We had no choice but to do what we did because the other(s) insulted our Mother India”. In a real psychotic condition, it is more likely we will be the ones to be taken away.

So the government,  Smiriti Irani and Rajnath Singh among others BJP ministers, RSS ideologues, Patiala House Bouncers in lawyers’ robes, media anchors, despite appearances, are not really psychotic. The appearances however are quite graphic and deserve a little consideration. They can be ordered roughly in the following sequence of events and logics: A group of students announce a cultural programme in JNU consisting of songs, poems, speeches to commemorate the anniversary of Afzal Guru’s hanging. They announce their brief first names on the posters, but at this stage who they are is of little significance. Identities are interesting only when they are either conspicuously concealed or dramatically highlighted. The students do neither, they are ‘normal’. Then the programme is held and it can be safely reconstructed that at some point or points, a string of slogans are shouted and heard. Do the identities of those who sloganeered become significant at this stage?  Not really because whoever shouted the slogans didn’t either try to conceal their identities nor particularly project them. They did what they did openly but without distinguishing themselves from the rest of those present. Hence later when interested parties will want to identify individuals and groups, they will have to override the lack of clarity of evidence with the decibel-level of their voices while asserting who shouted which slogan.

However the linguistic content of the slogans does appear with some vehemence and some significance to immediate posterity. At the same time, it has to be mentioned that the words are still ‘allegedly’ shouted given that the situation has been converted into a legal and forensic issue. No one can as yet assert with certainty the actual words spoken. However for the moment let us suppose that few key words (which include names) featuring in these slogans are – Afzal Guru, martyr, Kashmir, freedom, India, Pakistan, zindabad, murdabad…Some of these words and names are clearly meant to be ritually utilized in a political commemoration to produce a subjective figure for a future politics – Afzal Guru made martyr. This combined with other words and names seem to be addressed to everyone present to persuade them of a martyrdom. Or even exhort them to believe in it. In this sequence, the transgressive threshold of the slogans appear with the call to dismantle “India”. Is it to add insult to linguistic injury that Pakistan is praised?

Strangely, it seems that up till references to the political history of the Indian State’s relation with Kashmir, the slogans persuade, exhort, transgress…but with “Pakistan”, they perform a pure fiction.  It does not follow from alleging the violence of Indian state sovereignty that Pakistan is an alternative better sovereignty. Pakistan is the name of a real nation with a history of sovereign violence that doesn’t promise anything reassuring to the Kashmiri except an ambiguous Islamist environment at the most and a majoritarian Muslim identity at the least, if the concerned Kashmiri is Muslim. Pakistan doesn’t also follow from the Kashmiri people’s demand for self-determination precisely because they don’t want to determine themselves as any of the two others, India and Pakistan. But it is possible that the will to Kashmiri self-determination is a will to join the fiction of Pakistan insofar as the latter is the new name of Kashmir itself in its imagined independent status and not the actual historical notion of Pakistan. By this logic, Pakistan becomes the fictional name of the real Kashmiri people in its projected sovereignty and the slogan(s) in JNU – and elsewhere – perform this lucid but inflammatory fiction. Pakistan is the fictional name of an imagined Kashmir in the future when the name “free Kashmir” is forbidden in the present. However by this logic, Pakistan is not shouted to insult India but to escape it.

The above sequence of appearance surely involves several precarious thresholds of transgression of narrative expectations from collective political enunciation and some of these thresholds might – or might not – constitute legal pitfalls. Nevertheless it doesn’t take any third inner eye to see the sequence appear with complete linguistic and political frankness in an insurrectionary public style but with not an iota of physical violence. It is the appearance of insurrectionary principles, of which self-determination is one, with no seditious plan, move or conspiracy to act against Indian state or national sovereignty. A rational public seems to have gathered in JNU and improvised an assembly that transgressed certain normative – legal too? – frontiers. It was not the meeting of a secret society with subversive criminal intent. A rational public seems to have risked certain enunciations with an insurrectionary normative content and inflammatory fictional content in free and frank acts of speech. Up to this point it remains without interest what is the particular identity of those who made these acts of speech since they neither concealed these identities nor advertised them.

Then to all appearances, madness comes. A television anchor has a fit, which is turning out to be interminable, and several others join in to coordinate a great dance of seizures on the media. The home minister, HRD minister, party bosses, lawyers-bouncers-philologists of Indian culture respond in cacophonous unison to words heard in JNU slogans. Maddened philologists say that Mother India suffers body blows with these words and the death of India is incarnated in them. This is interesting because in contrast to maddened and apparently mad philology, concrete political interpretation of these slogans and their words – surely not heard for the first time in JNU, India and the world – would tell us that “murdabad” in this context does not refer to the desire to physically destroy but to structurally dismantle. When for instance, the slogan is shouted, “vice chancellor murdabad”, no one wishes for or intends the biological annihilation of the person, but they do call for the radical end of a certain system of power that the VC represents. This logic, extended on a national scale, has indeed an insurrectionary implication in principle that sovereign power, in its real historical deployment and as experienced by a real people, can be opposed in its entirety – but it doesn’t imply that anyone is planning, by virtue of this declaration of an insurrectionary principle, physical damage, destruction, death within and of sovereign territory, the population dwelling there, the objects or properties held with this sovereign dominium. At the same time, it doesn’t mean that in principle everyone spread across the territory in their heterogeneous historical experience of power, accepts the immaculate coincidence of sovereignty and territory, law and patrimony.

Maddened philology, on the other hand, sees these words like pictures, feels them as blows. Strictly speaking, these are psychotic symptoms and hence it appears that philology maddened by insult to Mother India is actually mad since it cant even hear or read insult at the level of discursive communication. After all there is long and rather venerable intellectual tradition of trading insults, including in this country. Neither Marx nor Ambedkar spared their antagonists the sharpest invective; they relished a polemical culture with the highest political stakes, with no subject taboo. Ambedkar didn’t bat an eyelid relating the grim history of conquest, conflict and victimization in India to pose the question of self-determination of the Muslim-majority areas to all the people of the country. He asked everyone to decide on the question in 1940 and 1945 : Pakistan or no Pakistan?

Self-determination, in general, in principle and in particular, was not an unthinkable proposition. Even to decide against it, we have to think about it. Jotiba Phule wrote the greatest and most emancipatory insulting text in modern Indian historical literature, Gulamgiri, to dismantle the system of Hindu dogma, myth and law, fused into one in Manusmriti. He played the game of linguistic images with such genius that he made the Hindu parable of the four varnas born from Brahma’s body a literal case of ‘auto-mockery’. If Brahma indeed gave birth to all the classes from his body, what sort of a body did he have? Male or Female? Sexual or divine? Biological or immaculate? Today when the system of language is turned to literal images, images turned to vital essences, in other words, a system of discourse turned to a system of psychosis, of stupidity, then it seems to be a palpable counter-revolutionary effort to reverse Phule’s tradition of the rational and emancipatory insult.

Like all counter-revolutions, this one too hates the fact that it owes its existence to the original revolution – and to forget this fact, it would like to commit not counter-revolutionary repudiation of the revolution as thought but purgation of those it considers “revolutionaries”. The ‘JNU type’, according to the current regime, doesn’t threaten it as a terrorist does, which at the worst, is still a localized external threat; this alleged type threatens the regime systematically and fundamentally, as a revolutionary does. And so, strangely, in the cascade of psychotic symptoms, a counter-rational strategy is revealed – the reason underlying a system of stupidity meant to govern the nation in the mode of an idiot rule, a grotesque sovereignty.

Now for two aspects of the grotesque mode of sovereign power: it involves (a) the extraction of legitimation from society beyond legality (while relentlessly invoking the letter, clause, word(s) of law like formulae, mantras idiotically); (b) forging society as a society of denunciation to extract this legitimation beyond law. The second aspect first: Built on intense suspicion that sovereign authority is exposed to some form or other of disobedience to its command, the authority transfers this suspicion to the domain of society. So all disobedience of authority gets translated as profanation of the value of authority as a social value. Within a limited, though shattering, scope, such value is deposited in communitarian and religious localities. So society doesn’t cease to shudder these days with its religious, customary and familial sentiments hurt and hunt without relief. With every hurt, society is expressed as a vital body threatened and wounded by an anti-body, an enemy at the gates of society’s frontiers. When the scope is extended and stakes are raised, society’s frontiers become the nation’s frontiers, with the enemy nation at its gates essentially imagined as an enemy society. With this fusion of state sovereignty and the body of society, the nation is hallucinated as a national society beleaguered by (anti-) national (anti-)society. India and Pakistan, in this hallucinatory theatre, haven’t ceased playing out a kind of mimetic rivalry for a long, long time.

However, in the immediate conjuncture, construction of the society of denunciation consists of seeing mimetic rivals within the country everywhere – and in certain localities like JNU all otherness, all alien dispositions, all disobedience to sovereign command is hallucinated to be deposited. So now society must first identify the aliens and denounce them so that it is purged of its mimetic rivals – the anti-social anti-nationals, the pro-azaadi, the pro-Pakistani, the anti-Indians (who are Indians, always Indians!). Identify and denounce through the collective hallucination of society which is the media – and there upon call the police… In arguably the biggest frame-up of its citizens in independent India, the law only follows sovereign decision. But sovereign decision itself seeks legitimations from a society busy identifying and denouncing its own members. Rajnath Singh  speaks blithely and stupidly of Hafeez Sayeed’s links with JNU students because he knows that his grotesque sovereign rule is consistently articulated with society’s denunciation of its “anti-nationals”. What does it matter whether it is not factually true, all this Hafiz Sayeed business, since when someone is an “anti-national” she is bound to believe in Hafiz Sayeed. And this fictional name “Hafiz Sayeed” is enough legitimate reason to set the splendor of Delhi police in motion. When slogans praise the fiction of “Pakistan” frankly and publicly with no other support but that dangerous fiction, someone factually connected to the slogans or not is identified, denounced arrested. But the prima facie basis for these actions is the conspiratorial fiction of the government called “Hafiz Sayeed”. One fiction can only be shouted and the more it is shouted, more it exposes itself to public scrutiny. The other one can be and is enforced and the more it is enforced the more it dissimulates itself as a truth protected by secrecy proper to sovereignty. ( “ you can’t reveal intelligence reports in public”).

All of this above to secure a grotesque mode of sovereign rule whose formula is this: The more sovereign power looks ugly, feels despicable, acts brutally and talks idiotically, the more effective it is in holding and increasing its ambit and intensify. No one thought George. W. Bush particularly bright; but his dim intellectual repute was directly proportional to his frighteningly effective plans of attacking every country he wanted to attack. Such a manner of sovereignty without needing the classical legitimating strategies and yet brutally legitimated by society beyond mere law, is the fantasy of all governments that exercise sovereign power.  BJP today is violently enacting this fantasy and is seeming to say to the people who elected it “we look stupid and crazy to you, well we are and you better learn to like it!” which is to say, the method in this madness is to decide to be mad. And if this sounds absolutely cold-blooded then it probably is. And if it is then it must be the work of reason, nothing but reason! Whose reason it is, who is the most well served by the strategy of psychosis, and the system of stupidity will be the subject of a sequel to the above by this author.

But all this dismal analysis at a time when the students of JNU are creating something so heartbreakingly beautiful that the heart never felt so whole before…

[Soumyabrata Choudhury currently teaches at the School of Arts and Aesthetics, JNU . He has previously taught at CSSSC. Kolkata, and has been a fellow at CSDS, Delhi and IIAS, Shimla. His book Theatre, Number, Event: Three Studies on the Relationship of Sovereignty, Power and Truth was published by IIAS, Shimla in 2013.]


2 thoughts on “A Close Look at Certain Words Allegedly Shouted Recently in JNU and Their Impact on Our National Intelligence: Soumyabrata Choudhury”

  1. The article introduces a new notion or tool for the analysis of the situation we find ourselves in, today: the notion of grotesque sovereign. It has two defining features: the grotesque sovereign does not follow the logic of the very law it draws its own legitimation from but rather tries to bolster itself through forceful assertion of certain words as sacrosanct, and hence beyond all scope of debate which becomes blasphemous vis-à-vis those words. And secondly, simultaneously with the assertions come denunciation of all the perceived threats to the sacrosanct words which have been allowed, following a psychosis, to assume images and substances….so two questions emerge at this juncture: firstly, given that we understand society and its subjects- in whatever sense we understand the latter term- are discursively constructed and that discourses are considered to have effects which affect reality as we understand it, what are the author’s specific reasons for stating that there is a need to maintain distinctions between the rhetorical value of certain terms like Pakistan or azaadi and their actual contents? Why can we not accept that even the fiction of Pakistan as a potentially powerful discourse, can generate fear in the grotesque sovereign and rightly so, because just as the grotesque sovereign is attempting to persuade upon us the sacredness of certain words, its counter too functions at the discursive level, albeit a discourse that believes in following its reason to its logical conclusion, unlike its adversary. Secondly, why do we have to call the grotesque sovereign stupid or idiotic because it insists on repeating certain terms without explaining their significance? I mean does Badiou’s definition of ideology precisely not describe it as something that allows ‘reiteration’ but not ‘recognition’; following this, can we dismiss Indian grotesque sovereign’s ideology as stupid? Is that not too easy a way to wash off the influence of the ideology as a non-problem?


    1. In an interview with Occupied London Manuel Castells writes: “I find it essential not to build closed theoretical systems with the only purpose to win a share in the intellectual market of social theory. I always go back to the drawing board. It is so much more fun to try to understand new social forms and processes than to play with words. Theorists are usually very boring chaps. Do not fall in such a trap. Live in your practice, not in your books. Stay close to the facts, ask your own questions, and build your own conceptual systems with whatever is useful to your work. Ignore words or concepts that even their authors only half understand. Escape from theory courses, the last refuge of the intellectual gentry. Look around you and try to understand the world as it is, your world. And keep changing. The day you stop changing you are basically dead. Life is change. ” He also says: “You do not need fancy words. Make things simple, they are usually more simple than our concepts. Some social scientists use abstraction to enhance their status rather than their knowledge. “


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