Of False Binaries and ‘Dirty’ Politics: Divya Kannan

This is a guest post by DIVYA KANNAN

Manu Joseph’s latest commentary regarding the ongoing crisis in Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) and the larger debate on Indian ‘nationalism’ smacks of crass elitism, as a journalist pithily pointed out online. If one were to use a ‘different term’, as Joseph himself keeps venturing to do in his writing, it is simply nauseating. This is for several reasons. To begin with, he harbours a convoluted understanding of what research in higher educational institutes entails, the nature of student politics, the lasting dangers of right wing assaults, and the pathetic misrepresentation carried out by the media, including himself, of the pressing issues in this country.

Joseph’s ‘illogical hatred’ of JNU, which he has amply demonstrated on other occasions is a sign of the social thinking led by the liberal upper-classes. They believe their right to exercise a free opinion can include the vilification and of not just one particular individual but marginalised groups of people, who labour for them and struggle to live with dignity. Thus the debates on who is more ‘nationalist’ than whom, in which JNU has found itself, is not restricted to the campus alone. This is the message that Kanhaiya Kumar, JNU Students Union President, forcefully delivered upon his return, after having spent twenty one days in  Tihar jail and being subjected to assaults by lawyers and a self-righteous media – An experience that Joseph seems to perceive as something Kumar deliberately desired as a means to achieving ‘other’ ends.

His characterisation of twenty-eight year old Kumar ‘entering politics’ as a short cut to getting rich and enjoying ‘power’ is indicative of the general aversion of the elites towards participatory politics. Even as the rich lobby and demand vociferously their right to everything under the sun, and that too with copious amounts of corporate tax cuts, women and men from poorer sections are aggressively denied a voice. Manu Joseph’s hollow writing adds to this cacophony that views political activity by those from backward regions and classes, including students, as unacceptable and a waste of ‘tax-payers’ money’. By claiming that ‘tax-payers’ can determine the contours of nationalism, Joseph casts research students in public universities in an unfavourable light. The ongoing struggle waged by the JNU students along with their contemporaries in other public institutions is a direct challenge against such caste-class prejudices. Inclusive higher education opens new avenues of identity formation, assertion and political representation for diverse groups of people, which threatens Joseph’s uncritical enjoyment of privilege.

This obsession with the age of research scholars is nothing new. A glance at the array of audio-visual and print media slandering JNU as a ‘den of anti-nationalism’, ‘hub of immorality’, and, by some ridiculously twisted argument, also of terrorism, reveal the roots of such an unwarranted obsession. Given the narrow definition of ‘education’ held by the dominant classes who partake of it in terms of career aspirations and air mileage points, it is not surprising that there exists an absolute lack of understanding of what constitutes academic research and its implications. Just in case Joseph has forgotten this: there is no particular age for an individual to pursue research and broaden their horizons. Moreover, given the structural constraints placed before deprived students, the road towards achieving a meaningful education is an arduous one. Entry into universities alone does not guarantee that they shall enjoy the fruits of higher learning. Persistent casteism, sexism, and lack of institutional and state support continue to compound their problems. Of course, Joseph’s easy answer to all this would be: why bother in the first place? But what the former sees as a no-brainer, is also at the core of the politics of assertion in the country, particularly in the last few decades.

The response of the JNU student-teacher community against the assault on their fundamental freedoms is also a strong challenge to the hegemony of knowledge production in India. The status-quoists, happily partaking of state resources as well as privatisation, are threatened by the uncomfortable questions raised about the oppressive social structures that grip the country. They denounce any move towards democratisation of education as an infringement on their personal freedoms by couching it in the brahmanical language of ‘merit’. While they denounce the policies of affirmative action as being unfair, they do not refrain from demanding their own subsidies and freebies from the state. This is the fight that university students in the last couple of months have taken upon themselves. By exposing the corruption and high-handedness of the current Hindutva regime which supports such ideological conservatism, students are uniting to uphold their constitutional freedoms and shake traditional structures through the best means at their disposal: a university education that encourages them to critique, question, debate, and dissent.

In a country where the number of students in higher research is appalling low, Joseph also seems to think that PhD students in India and other developing countries pursue academics under frustrating conditions because they have nothing better to do. When they could be ‘earning money’ in ‘cool’ companies such as Hewlett Packard,  why would students, especially the poor, want to study social structures, issues of discrimination, state policies and nurture a deeper understanding of the world they occupy? Clearly, he thinks this a ‘waste’ of their intellect and time. Instead, his crass elitism is exhibited with him wanting poor students to occupy the lower-rungs of the social and labour hierarchy and never aspire to enter the hallowed corridors of university spaces. In this regard, he condemns Kanhaiya Kumar, as a student in his late twenties and other such students, for supposedly ‘neglecting’ their familial obligations. His blissfully deliberate ignorance about research as a painstaking process, the fundamental plank of any innovation and policy-making, leads him to conclude that students must remain content with what is on offer and not dream of a better world.

His rhetoric on ‘age’, with no reasonable analysis of the state of higher education in the current political climate of financial cuts and authoritarianism, also highlights the deep-rooted prejudice towards humanities and related scholarship in India. Research scholars in the humanities are scoffed at for not pursuing the usual ‘engineering/medical’ career choices. Their resolve to develop skills of studying and understanding their research fields with empathy, contributing to a growing body of knowledge to help undo repressive institutions and norms, is viewed largely as an ‘incapacity’ to earn well and ‘settle’ down in life. It is not surprising that given the pedagogical approaches in many of India’s universities, those pursuing arts and humanities, in particular, have been at the forefront of the resurgent student movement, calling for change.

Students such as Kanhaiya Kumar who don multiple identities as a student, activist, civil society member, friend and mentor, and usually, all at once, troubles the likes of Joseph and Arnab Goswami, who had rather characterise all researchers as ‘lawless and promiscuous’ creatures. These ‘holier-than-thou’ men resort to moral defamation when they have no serious argument to put forth when questions against violence in the country is raised. It seems they would prefer an Arindam Chaudhuri kind of ‘world-class’ education which empties one’s pockets in return for an emptier brain.

This line of thinking has gripped the imagination of the middle and upper-classes in for long. In order to avoid questions about contemporary society and economy, and abusing history for their own vested interests, they tend to collapse the debate within the binaries of ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’. A binary that is also echoed in discourses of state welfare, especially towards the poor. In order to qualify for state support and judicial rights, Dalits, minorities, women and research students, in general, are compelled to prove their ‘worth’. They have to constantly convince the deshbhakts of their ‘merit’ and ‘usefulness’. This language of ‘usefulness’ has often been employed, time and again, to pit students against each other. The most notable being, engineering/professional business management versus humanities research scholars. The Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) is usually portrayed as the ‘role model’ for universities such as JNU, where students ‘work hard’ to uphold the glory of the country. What is conveniently forgotten or suppressed is that IITs are also places of acute caste and gender discrimination. It does not affect the powers-that-be that Dalit students face boycott and discrimination in IIT classrooms, stripping them of their dignity. There is no sustained debate in the country on such injustice in the arenas of scientific research.

Tragically, more students have committed suicides in the IITs during the last ten years than in social science  institutions, which has never received the media’s attention. A number of IIT graduates, sometimes numbering up to twenty percent, still continue to leave the country, regardless of the government’s neoliberal policies. Despite studying for engineering degrees, many of them do not pursue a profession in the field, and branch out to banking, civil services, online businesses, amongst others. Even as one one raises these concerns, one is aware that the debate is not about who is a better student. Such a binary does not exist, especially in the context of our struggles for better public education. Both IIT and JNU are at the receiving end of anti-intellectual, anti-science Hindutva forces, in varying degrees. Students, irrespective of their interests, are targets because of the inherent potential for change within public institutions. Unlike Joseph who callously believes that the tragic death of Rohith Vemula, a Dalit research scholar in the University of Hyderabad, is only a case of depression, the ongoing resistance waged in campuses is for the democratisation of education and holding the state responsible for its excesses. Both of which seems to elude Joseph’s pen as he attempts to club together millionaire Bollywood actors such as Deepika Padukone’s case of depression and the ruthless caste boycott and institutional violence inflicted on Vemula and his friends. By erasing their Dalit identities, radical Ambedkarite politics and the memory of past oppression, the rich ‘tax-payers’ are keen on erasing their very existence, something that Vemula himself hauntingly pointed out in his suicide letter.

The need of the moment has been to forge a wider unity amongst students and a greater solidarity of progressive forces comprising the Left, Dalit, and feminist movements. This is increasingly becoming possible and threatens the right wing machinery. It is in this context that students voicing their political opinions (as if they are unthinking beings whose lives are outside the realm of the political) and defending the rights of their peers has unsettled the government and the larger middle classes. The construction of a false and harmful debate that ‘students must stay away from politics’ because their job is to only ‘study’ has been used to gloss over the concrete issues of privatisation, unemployment, poverty, gender injustice, right wing extremism, and outright denial of fundamental rights in universities.

What is the nature of ‘studying’ that the self-proclaimed guardians of the nation believe in? How can the lives of students hailing from varying socio-economic backgrounds, including the rich, be devoid of anything ‘political’? For Joseph, the P-word is a dirty one. It should not be spoken about. Even when students live in inhospitable conditions on meagre stipends, eating unhealthy food, devoid of advanced learning facilities, such as libraries, and other technologies, one should not utter the P-word. The endlessly complaining middle classes who want more subsidies, better water and electricity facilities, roads and flyovers, turn a blind eye when the state absolves its responsibilities towards higher education. Especially about campuses such as JNU which records a high number of students from marginalised communities including women, the rich could care less. Instead, politics is also considered the latter’s domain.

The twisted opinions dished out by Joseph that Kanhaiya Kumar has suddenly become ‘political’ are attempts to create artificial divisions between the ‘personal’ and the ‘political’. It also reveals the concerted efforts to keep the poor at the margins. Any student with a critical enquiry of mind is immediately cast in a suspicious light. By making a pathetic and shaky comparison of the communist parties and Joseph’s encounter at Hewlett Packard in his writing, he has only exposed the hypocrisy of his ilk. His inability to digest the fact that students, including Kanhaiya Kumar, have always been radical and will continue to be so, muddies the strict black and white world (with us or against us) Joseph occupies. Perhaps, he does not want to admit his own glaring inability to analyse and rationally make an argument about ground realities.

Yes, Kanhaiya Kumar has promised change by reposing his faith in the Constitution, the judiciary, and the democratic mechanisms of the country – but he is not alone in this. If the response of the students of JNU, University of Hyderabad, Jadavpur University, IIT-Madras, and FTII, amongst others, is anything to go by, the students of this country have their hearts and brains in the right place. They are not pursuing their research interests for a long period of time, dropping out of the immediate labour market, subject to ridicule and unfavourable conditions, because it is the ‘coolest thing’ to do. Instead, they are upholding the Constitution and democratic traditions which the labouring people of this country have painstakingly forged, and reminding orthodox forces such as Mr. Manu Joseph that to ‘study’ is their right and as clichéd as this sounds, they shall have it.

[Divya Kannan is currently a doctoral research scholar at the Centre for Historical Studies, JNU, New Delhi. She wishes to thank Gayatri, Rahul and Aditya.]

2 thoughts on “Of False Binaries and ‘Dirty’ Politics: Divya Kannan

  1. Pradip Baksi

    For an understanding of some aspects of the nature and history of our IITs please see:
    1.The Elite’s Last Stand :Negotiating Toughness and Fairness in IIT-JEE, 1990-2005, Draft, Version 4 at:
    http://web.mit.edu/skelkar/www/shreeharsh-kelkar_files/Kelkar-IIT_JEE_ver4.pdf
    2. Access, satisfaction, and future: Undergraduate education at the Indian Institutes of Technology, 2010, at:
    https://scholar.google.co.in/citations?view_op=view_citation&hl=en&user=J41TeKd7GIMC&citation_for_view=J41TeKd7GIMC:eQOLeE2rZwMC

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