Vilification from the apolitical: The Dreyfus Affair and the case against JNU: Joyojeet Pal

This is a guest post by Joyojeet Pal

In 1894, a case of espionage broke out in France. Alfred Dreyfus, a young officer was arrested in connection with a letter suggesting a transfer of sensitive documents to the German attaché in Paris. Dreyfus was arrested for the crime, his family was intimidated and he was swiftly convicted despite weak evidence. After being publicly shamed as a traitor in a court-martial, he was sent to ‘Devil’s Island’ in French Guinea, a notorious penal colony. Within a couple of years of his conviction, a movement emerged to re-examine the facts of the case. Dreyfus would be eventually re-tried and re-convicted despite overwhelming evidence in his favour.

Dreyfus was Alsatian, Jewish, and a graduate of the elite École Polytechnique, one of the most competitive institutes in the country. Alsace had been lost by France following the Franco-Prussian war, the French were bitter about this, and Alsatians were often seen as a suspicious regional minority. The case that came to be known as the “Dreyfus Affair” in time became a landmark in modern French history because of the multilayered schisms in French society that it threw open.

Two more trials took place in interim between the two of Dreyfus himself – a judicial inquest of the officer, Ferdinand Esterhazy, suspected of doctoring evidence and framing Dreyfus, and a defamation case against Émile Zola, a writer who publicly supported Dreyfus in a landmark open letter to the president published in the socialist newspaper L’Aurore titled “j’accuse” (I accuse). In both cases, mobs of people followed the proceedings or waited outside courthouses. Esterhazy was found innocent to cheering supporters,[1] Zola on the other hand was publicly maligned for his seditious letter by invoking his foreign origins (his father was Italian). His trial ended with him receiving the maximum possible sentence for defamation.

There were multiple layers of victimhood and perpetration in the Dreyfus case. Clearly, the man himself was the prime victim, but those that stood with him were as well. The communities by extension – Jews, Alsatians, were targeted. Public figures, even people in the military, who believed in his innocence were attacked. The press at the time in France started as rabidly anti-Dreyfus, with few outlets willing to publish arguments counter to a mainstream discourse of Dreyfus’ guilt.[2]

The Dreyfus Affair has become a textbook study on organized prejudice in the name of nationalism. Its roots or outcomes are too broad (and disagreed upon) for a serious discussion here. But what matters here is the way it contributed to the mobilization of the French intelligentsia on one hand, and a construction of the “anti-national” in the imagination of the public. L’Aurore published a note called the “Manifesto of the Intellectuals”,[3] something of a modern day “Sign this Petition” which called for a revision of the verdict. The note, an early modern case of mobilizing the intelligentsia, spurred a radical reaction from opponents.

It split French society into Dreyfusards and anti-Drefusards, depending on one’s position on the guilt of Dreyfus. Mobs of people agitated against the any change in the original verdict, not just in the capital but in small towns all over France, despite the specifics of the case never being entirely clear. The media frenzy was led by ideologically driven news sources, including one of the key players – La Libre Parole, which was published by an organization known as the anti-Semitic League. For Dreyfusards, speaking up in his favour meant accusing the state. They could be tried under criminal jurisdiction (since it was technically hurtful to the taxpayer), whereas the verbal and media attacks on them by public figures and the media alike were administered by the weaker civil adversarial system.

While many students and thinkers did stand with Dreyfus, the overall Dreyfusard identity[4] was by no means restricted to just a small educated elite – many citizens from across various walks of life stood against the conviction and treatment of Dreyfus. Nonetheless, dubbing it intellectual helped to other it as an elite movement. Besides physical attacks and intimidation, the very term ‘intellectual’ was condemned and equated with excessive cerebrality, vanity, and effeminacy. [5] The notion of intellectuals interfering in matters of the law and nation were attacked as being out of place.[6]

Although Dreyfus was re-convicted, he was offered a full pardon if he accepted he was guilty. He took the deal.

There aren’t necessarily perfect parallels between the Dreyfus case – but correspondences are probably running through your mind right now.

If you are on the JNU campus, you have already been labeled one way or another. If you had anything to do with the campus and your credentials are known, you could find that the scar of deviance can follow you home. If you had the momentary lapse of reason to give yourself the POTA court equivalent complimentary defence by showing up on TV shows like NewsHour, the chances are your kin are now finding guilt by association of something you didn’t exactly know you were on trial for. If you are a stand-up comic who has said anything, ever that someone found repulsive enough to make the news, you learnt your lesson well before. Kanhaiya Kumar learnt the hard way.

In these past days you have almost certainly seen an othering category used as a callout to a suspicious minority – Kashmiri, Communist, Muslim. You have seen this happen on mainstream media that you trust or trusted. You have seen doctored evidence, you have seen citizens and mainstream media invoke doctored evidence even after they know it has been doctored. You have seen citizens turn researchers with technical investigations into the national cost of subsidizing college for dissenters. You have perhaps witnessed gentle forms of street justice carried out by citizen-judges.

You have probably also seen this played out on social media. You have found your acquaintances divided by what they choose to share and comment on. You have probably seen threads of conversations with two, or perhaps more sides talking back and forth with no changes in position. You have probably unfriended or unfollowed people, or had those done to you. You been enthralled by or dismayed with a video, article, or social media rant that an acquaintance has forwarded you, and in turn been surprised by where they stand on a certain issue, positively or otherwise.

If you’ve got into the comments section of any conversation, the chances are you’ve either called someone an anti-national, been called one, or at least seen someone else be called one. You may even have wondered if you are one. You may reminisce back to the days when being called a traitor meant something. You had to work to earn it, like Madan Puri wearing a Mao outfit in a den with beeping lights.

There is something refreshing about a vilification from the ‘apolitical’ – those that claim they do not get involved in politics, except when the nation is insulted. Then they cannot bear it. It claims legitimacy in presenting itself as Shiva’s third eye, powerful by the rarity of its invocation. If you thought you were an intellectual or knew one, you may have enjoyed the pleasure of being called a communist pinko. If you wrote a blog post, maybe you got nailed for being a presstitute. If you liked or retweeted the wrong link, perhaps someone even labeled you an intellectual, in their minds or to your face.

The attacks on the JNU students have hit home in personal ways that they did not in the past. ‘Intellectuals’ who have made their positions on the JNU issue public have been told to stay out of judicial matters,[7] and self-appointed speakers for the nation (film star Anupam Kher, for instance) have tweeted that to the opponents of the current movement as cockroaches who should be exterminated. Not only is the language disconcertingly reminiscent of Rwandan public media in the run up to the events of 1994, but that the message was among the most widely retweeted and favorited messages on Indian social media in 2016 should be sufficiently chilling.[8]

The mobilization of the apolitical has meant that outrage is no longer just the job of those who will willingly stand up to lathis, deal with FIRs, subject their dear ones to infamy, or sneak in a stone in the middle of an active mob. We may not get named as traitors on nationwide dailies, but perhaps a neighbor will desecrate our doorbells for signing the wrong petition. The spectacle of a new form of public execution, full with the delight of jeering on, is now ours at the click of a mouse.

It is exactly this that should remind us that our history is not far behind us. The notion that we are a different, informed society that would not let a Dreyfus affair in our watch should not deceive us. We have, if anything, far better weapons of both propaganda and self-deception at our behest. More importantly, we have the means to validate our ideas through our apolitical networks. The “La Libre Paroles” may be alive and well in today’s shouting media environment, but social media offers the ways to repeat stories, to track reputations, and to turn the number of ‘likes’ or ‘retweets’ into a metric of verity. Unlike the television that offers music videos or soaps as possibilities to switch channels to, the political in social media is braided into your very presence online. How many feeds can you block?

Our memory for spite remains the same a hundred years on. Dreyfus went back into the army. He fought again for the country where he was once the most hated man. He won medals for valour. But being confirmed a traitor comes with some permanence. The teeth you lose in dark solitary confinement don’t come back.

[1] Another officer, Hubert-Joseph Henry was found to be the one who doctored the evidence against Dreyfus. After his arrest, Henry committed suicide in jail. Supporters gathered together to pool together resources for his family, the cash donations frequently accompanied anti-Semitic letters from citizens

[2] While members of the Catholic clergy were openly complicit with the anti-Dreyfus movement, even the socialists, in this period, were considerably anti-Semitic, with the image of the Jewish capitalist frequently invoked as an opponent to worker rights.

[3] Georges Clemenceau, a politician and future wrote the ‘Manifesto of Intellectuals’ at the time, which came to be

[4] Indeed there are several types of Dreyfusards depending on what stage one started supporting Dreyfus’ cause, and whether the support was for Dreyfus per se or the broader anti-Semitism.

[5] This builds on Guy de Maupassant’s characterization of the intellectual, as referenced in Charle, C. (1998). Naissance des” intellectuels”: 1880-1900. Éds. de Minuit.

[6] Drake, D. (2005). The Dreyfus Affair and the Birth of the ‘Intellectuals’. In French intellectuals and politics from the Dreyfus affair to the occupation (pp. 8-34). Palgrave Macmillan UK.

[7] A note from the Overseas Friends of BJP to specific academics who voiced support for JNU students was posted on Facebook stating “You would be attempting to intervene in the judicial proceeding in India by putting political pressure on the Indian government. It would be seen as a misuse of the clout and respect bestowed to you by your profession and Institute to destabilize democratic and constitutional processes of a foreign government”

[8] Exact text from the tweet by @AnupamPKher on February 20, 2016: घरों में पेस्ट कंट्रोल होता है तो कॉक्रोच, कीड़े मकोड़े इत्यादि बाहर निकलते है। घर साफ़ होता है।वैसे ही आजकल देश का पेस्ट कंट्रोल चल रहा है।

2 thoughts on “Vilification from the apolitical: The Dreyfus Affair and the case against JNU: Joyojeet Pal

  1. Comparing JNUSU struggle with dreyfus affair- excellent. Mass & fund mobilisation in every city is essential to meet students struggle. We have utmost sympathy with JNUSU. Something has to be done. I don’t know at present.
    Long live JNUSU.

  2. Nilanjan Bhowmick

    Fine article. The lack of reason being displayed over the JNU row is simply astonishing. Nothing has been done by the students that they haven’t done before. And to arrest for sedition passes comprehension. Surely they have a right to their opinions for at least they are held with reason.

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