Guest post by SHOURJENDRA NATH MUKHERJEE
Please note that this response was first sent to Swarajya Mag, where Prof Paranjpe’s Open letter appeared, but was not published. It was then sent to Kafila.
Dear Prof Paranjape
I am Shourjendra, an MPhil research scholar in the Department of History, DU. I write this letter as a rejoinder to your open letter in response to Maitreyee Shukla. Your open letter was not addressed to me and therefore you can feel free to not reply to my letter.
You sir, seem to reflect a lot of the opinions expressed very strongly by a section of the urban middle classes. Granted, these views are by their very nature not ‘fascist’ but nonetheless they help perpetuate and legitimate the regime in power. You are also one of the most eminent academicians to have sought to engage in these raging debates in the public sphere, and I very strongly appreciate you for this. Your open letter is one such statement and I would like to take this up as an opportunity to critically engage with some of the issues that you have raised. (Since, your statements are mostly uncritical appreciation and endorsement of these ideas, I would regard your statements as statements made by an academician who has paused to think academically.)
In this letter I want to try to deconstruct and contextualise your arguments to understand them better, and to provide some answers (not necessarily favourable) to the points that you have raised. My open letter to you is as much an academic exercise for me as it is political.
The root of your concern is, “how these vulnerable young women and men are being used by political parties for their own purposes”. You have said, “…so when you say that the entire student movement as manufacturers of discontent, surely you have not understood me. The manufacturers of discontent may be forces far more sinister, using gullible, idealistic and impressionable students for their own purposes.” Basically you are saying that the movement is not manufacturing discontent but it is, itself the manufactured discontent. Manufactured, by the ‘Left’ forces.
Firstly, your argument doesn’t allow the space to the students to have any agency of their own. When you say ‘they are being used’, you erase the space for any kind of agency in the very construction of your sentences. The position from within which this kind of an argument can be made is quite disturbing to say the least. Using words like ‘brainwashed’ and ‘used’ betrays the lack of willingness to recognise, the students as active participants in their own political movement. It also suggests an unwillingness to engage with the actual causes of this movement. This unwillingness, then is a political statement which you are making.
Secondly, you seem to suggest that the participants of this movement have all ‘Leftist’ leanings. This is a myth which needs to be conclusively deconstructed and publicly buried. The movement is not and had never been limited to JNU nor to the Leftist parties. It has been a spontaneous movement of students from every kind of universities against fascist forces. How will your ‘brainwash’ thesis work outside JNU? Students from IITs, AIMS, DU, JNU, HCU, Ambedkar University, Jamia, BHU, IP University, South East Asian University and many more have participated in the movement. Are all these students, supporters of left parties? I for myself have never been a part of any party. If you had come to any protest march you would have actually realised that 90% of the participants are not part of any party organisation. And a majority of them are even critical of left politics.
Your primary concerns are followed by other concerns, such as a defence of your stance on beef eating. The first thing that struck me was your example of pork and Kashmir. The issue of pork being actually raised by Maitreyee. Kashmir’s example is striking. The question is what is the role of this example in your narrative strategy? To my mind it is doing two things. Firstly, it creates a binary opposite of beef eating within India. Secondly, this opposition is then used as an ethical deterrent against beef eating. I do agree with you that in a democracy the people should not hurt each other’s sentiments. I also believe that democracy is not about the choice of the majority, that would be majoritarianism. Democracy is, when the voice of the minority is listened to and negotiated with. You go on to say that the beef parties actually aim at dividing the society and are, “aim(ed) to offend, provoke, and attack those who are against cow slaughter. Now who are there targets? Mostly Hindus...” As I understand, you are also against ‘Hindu-phobia and Hindu-bashing’.
These beef parties needs to be contextualised. Did anyone hear of beef parties, 2 or 3 years back? The first party was organized only after the Dadri Lynchings. The idea is not to target Hindus but Hindutva. Dadri lynchings are not isolated incidents. The last one took place just a week back where students were beaten on the doubt of beef cooking. So what people now fear are not Hindus, but the political ideology of Hindutva. No one has asked the Hindus to eat beef. What is asked is, not to deny others the right to have it. The real issue at hand is not eating or not eating beef/pork. It is when things like these begin to be used as icons to define a nation and nationalism. A nation which is defined by icons, not by its citizens.
Next sir, you talk on the issue of Mahishasur. You said that, “as long as such worship is not intended to give offense but express alternate traditions, it is not objectionable. But when it is combined with abuse of Durga, then it is bound to create hatred and divide”. Is ‘abuse’, in practice not relative and contested? What may seem abusive to an upper cast Hindu, may actually be a very valid form of contestation for a dalit. A number of sociologists and historians have written on how ritual practices reproduce caste inequalities on a daily basis. Gyan Prakash has done that in his article, “Reproducing Inequalities: Spirit Cults and Labour relations in Colonial Eastern India.”
These rituals are extremely political. Therefore, when they are taken out of context for contestation, similar political statements are made in other ways, by those who are contesting. Calling Durga a seductress might be one of them. But the problem here is not that. It is the elevation of Durga into an image of national mother. You are supporting this wholeheartedly. What you are actually doing is taking the space to contest caste oppression from the dalits. You are taking away discursive spaces of contestations in the construction of your own narrative.
Rohit Vemula was a Dalit who had to commit suicide. He is not just ‘any young person’. His suicide needs to be looked as the suicide of a dalit scholar. Nothing more. Nothing less. Your attempt to reduce the movement into an effort to capitalize on his death has been thoroughly criticized already. I would just ask, when you use the word ‘capitalize’ in a negative sense what is the positive binary to it? Answering this will reveal more on your idea of the other (positive) kind of political movements, which do not capitalize. Moreover, is there any means or mechanism to argue or show, when or how does a protest capitalize on the acts against which it is protesting? By using your logic, Gandhi was capitalizing on India’s unfreedom; Mandela was capitalizing on apartheid and so on. Is this a responsible comment to be made by a scholar of your stature?
Yet another serious argument you make is regarding the payment of taxes. You say that, “I merely said that middle class, taxpaying citizens ask why should they subsidize “anti-nationalism”. I didn’t say they were right or wrong, only that you can’t blame them for thinking this way.” You seem by these lines, to suggest that you are taking a neutral stand, but is that really what you are doing? The taxpaying citizens believe the things that are happening to be ‘anti national ‘and are therefore asking such questions. The idea of anti-nationalism then becomes the reason for the questions to be raised in the first place. Thus when you say that ‘one can not blame them for thinking like this’ you are actually, by the very construction of your argument, accepting the questions asked and the reason for those question being asked.
You, quite intelligently tie up this argument with another argument about how, “to offer dissent in the name of poorest of the poor is a bad logic and even worst ethics on the part of essentially middle class students. This is merely to appropriate someone else’s victimhood for your own, some would say parasitical privilege.” This line is the most interesting line in the entire letter. It is only here that you inadvertently give the students their agency back. We have come far away from the idea of manufactured discontent. Here the students are not brainwashed. They think, they understand how to appropriate someone else’ victimhood for their own privileges. But sadly, throughout your whole article, this is the only instance where students are not working only as a mindless mass. Thanks.
Sir, you say that you have talked to the domestic workers who have pointed out there objections to constant ‘politicking and sloganeering’. Your stand on separating academics from politics is not yours alone. You share this stand with many people, our HRD minister most importantly. This stand has also been thoroughly criticized and condemned. Hence, I would not talk about it in this letter.
In your response you have argued that, “these institutions (IIT’s and IIMs) also give research degrees, such as PHDs, even in social science.” You went on to say that, “there theses are far better than ours? That is because these schools are run more professionally, with greater academic accountability, and a better work culture.” This raises several critical questions like what is greater accountability and greater work culture? Does not participating in politics, in itself guarantees these qualities? Who and by what mechanisms can one not only define these qualities, but impose and judge on the basis of them? Most importantly, various departments, in universities like JNU and DU have contributed immensely towards the development of the respective disciplines. If Phds and Mphils from JNU are contributing more to the field, how are they qualitatively inferior? Just to make myself clear I am not saying that IITs IIMs don’t contribute but I am saying that the contribution of social science departments in universities like JNU and DU is way more important in the shaping of the disciplines themselves. Such comment on your part in a public space is not only flawed but irresponsible and misleading for the people outside academics. Who should be responsible for misleading those who are not aware? Is it not ‘manufacturing of discontent’?
I also intend to question the very position from where such a binary between IITs and Universities are created. I have personally seen students from IITs and AIMS joining the protest marches. Of course they are a minority. But does this have to do with being a part of IIT/ IIM or being trained in a certain particular discipline?
History manifests in the society in many different ways. Every one has a history and everyone has a right over his/her history. It is the very basis of how individuals make sense of their identities. These identities can be of many kind, it can be national, gender, linguistic, caste based and so on. Accepting and responding from with in these identities is also a very political act. Every individual has to necessarily participate in this, and these types of histories form popular histories. Science students are not taught to question and deconstruct these processes. Social Science students are. Hence it is an extremely flawed and dubious way to use this kind of difference to create binaries between academic institutions. It is even more unethical to then link it up with dubious comments about work culture and academic accountability.
I think this is also the place to remind you that this movement is not only about JNU. Universities like DU charge a big amount as hostel fees. Which is directly correlated to economic factors. It has increased every year. It is the same with a lot of other universities. But still, you say “many JNU students can afford to pay more”. It is a very misleading idea. Income tax is based on individual income. If I am a JNU student, coming from the middle class who dines at 24×7 and studies in a coaching centre, my father and mother is already a part of the middle class and hence already paying their taxes. Thus they are already paying according to their ability. But the student himself/herself is not earning. How can he/she afford to pay then?
What about to each according to his need part of your argument? Are the students being paid sufficiently for their research? From a personal experience I can tell you that going to the national archive from DU, North Campus, having lunch and then coming back takes around 200 Rs daily. That is 6000 Rs in a month. There are a lot of other expenses incurred in photocopying, buying stationary, eating regularly and so on. But I am being paid just Rs 5000. How am I going to do my research then? Clearly my research would not effect people outside academics directly. But you as an academician should have been the first one to understand it. Your statement falls completely flat.
Finally coming to the last section of the response where you have quoted Gandhi, where he said, “it will be your duty to tell the revolutionaries and everybody else that the freedom they want, or they think they want, is not to be obtained by killing people or doing violence, but by setting themselves right, and by becoming and remaining truly Indian.” I have personally found the idea of quoting very interesting. It helps, the person who is quoting to appropriate the original author/speaker’s authority, simultaneously being able to decontextualize, recontextualize and finally negate his/her original intent. No wonder why you have several quotes in your response. Coming back to the last quote by Gandhi, I don’t know how it can be applied in the present situation since no one is taking recourse to violence. No one is also claiming to be non or anti- Indian. Actually the very fight is against branding anyone as anti-Indian.
The movement is not about JNU, it is also not about ‘Father Marx’. I am not from JNU, I have never been a part of any political party. But does that also mean I cannot have my politics? What we are seeing is a nation wide spontaneous students’ movement against fascist forces. The major chunk of your response from the beginning has been to snatch the students of their agency. You have not only questioned their capacity to think independently but you are actually saying that they don’t even have the capacity to make sense of what they are thinking. You might also argue that I am also snatching away agency from the middle classes, when I say that, “they support and help fascist govt. without much critical thinking”. You can say that. I will respond to you if you say that. But not now.
I also wonder why you feel ‘othered’? Because are you not on your own, otherizing yourself? Your discourse by its very logic makes you the other. You can think, students cant; you are independent; students are appropriated, your politics would make the educational space prosper; students, will bring ruin. Why do you blame ‘others’ for otherizing you then? To borrow your term, ‘naïveté’? Perhaps.
I was appalled by your response. It is to my mind, not your logical inconsistency but the failure of logic that is important. Most of your arguments are reductionist and flawed. But it is the irresponsibility with which they are made that disturbs me. We are at a time, when the entire student movement is being reduced to a Left front lead JNU movement by its critics to counter it. This, I think will be a timely intervention by someone without those labels.
Chastising anyone is not my intention. Drawing and redrawing boundaries is not my concern. These things are being taken care of, by people much more able than me. I am also not sure about the amount of authority which history can give. But one thing the discipline teaches all its students, is to ask questions. That was my intention here. I am sure that will be the intention of the historians who will write about these troubled times.
Shourjendra N. Mukherjee
(Shourjendra N. Mukherjee is a history student from DU.)