[This is a response to Shourajenda Nath Mukherjee’s open letter on Kafila by Prof Makarand Paranjape]
Mr. Shourjendra Nath Mukherjee’s “Open Letter” of April 5, 2016 makes only one substantive point, concerning the agency of students, which needs attention. The rest of it, as the Dormouse said to Alice, is “much of a muchness” – confusion, rigmarole, and thumb-twiddling over precious little, which scarcely need be dignified by serious confutation.
But because Mr. Mukherjee has just joined the Kafila, I have drawn inspiration at least for my title from one of its distinguished leaders, who is “in search of a new, multi-coloured Left, Red having become monochromatic grey.” Actually, grey is not monochromatic; it has the proverbial fifty shades. Yet, its dominant constituents, even if not easily visible, remain, on either side of its spectrum, black and white. What is the “white” of Mr. Mukherjee’s grey? It is the delusion that there is some sort of unified student movement across India spontaneously rising against Modi sarkar “fascism,” Hindutva neo-liberalism, taxpaying middle-classes, and so on, which are, of course, “black.” Mr. Mukherjee, given his leanings, seems constitutively incapable of transcending such black-and-white oppositions. Ironically, one of his favourite terms is “binary,” which he liberally sprinkles across his text, but is unable to free himself from, let alone employ accurately. Mr. Mukherjee’s simplistic view of the world, thus, comes with a thick overlay of regressive caste and communal politics, entitlement to unearned privileges, and, evidently, attempts to insert himself in the network of Left-cronyism by attacking its perceived enemies.
No wonder, on closer examination, Mr. Mukherjee’s shades of grey are mostly dull, duller, and dullest. When it comes to his own “grey matter,” three notes persist: a) factual inaccuracy, b) muddled thinking, and c) questionable integrity. A quick run-down of this alphabet of grey is offered in the hope that Mr. Mukherjee may still learn the “a-b-c” of critical thinking. I am afraid, however, that it may too little, too late, the damage of years of confused thinking being difficult to rectify. Let me quote a few examples from his text to illustrate.
- a) Factual inaccuracy
Mr. Mukherjee: “Did anyone hear of beef parties, 2-3 years back? The first party was organized only after the Dadri Lynchings.” Wrong. The first beef party was organised long before Dadri. As far back as 2012 in Hyderabad, radical groups threw a well-publicised beef party in which beef biryani was served and shared (http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-17727379).
- b) Muddled thinking
Notice how illogical Mr. Mukherjee’s very first paragraph is: “Your open letter was not addressed to me and therefore you can feel free to not reply to my letter.” First of all I wrote no “Open Letter”; I only responded to one posted against me. Secondly, if I need not respond because my letter was not addressed to him, then why has he responded to me? The word “therefore” in his sentence signals nothing but a non sequitur. If he had followed his own advice by keeping quiet, surely I would not have responded. Now, having addressed his “Open Letter” directly to me, isn’t it strange that he asks me to feel free not to return the compliment?
Mr. Mukherjee continues: “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.”
What does the above sentence, with tautological phrases such “statements as statements” and “academician who has paused to think academically” actually mean? “Paused to think academically”? Does Mr. Mukherjee imply that academicians do not normally think academically but only do so when they pause from academics? I hope he is speaking only of himself!
One more gem: “Every individual has to necessarily participate in this, and these types of histories form popular histories.” More tautology, with confusing pronoun references! Mr. Mukherjee, you are a Research Scholar in History in one our finest universities, a would-be historian, not to speak of teacher. Your disciplinary confusions and inabilities leave one worrying about the plight of your future students. Shouldn’t you be studying harder, improving your basic skills as a historian? Would you blame the public, at whose expense you are being educated, if it asks you to render a better account of yourself?
I don’t wish to nit-pick or be unkind. I have myself spent years teaching students far more ill-equipped or untrained than yourself. But many who really wanted to learn improved themselves to the extent that they are honourable members of the profession today. Suppose, on the other hand, you spent most of your time politicking and sloganeering, not attending classes, not bothering about your thesis, moreover showing contempt towards those who were genuinely trying to study? Wouldn’t that be perturbing?
Unfortunately, the academic attainments of many students in the Social Sciences and Humanities in JNU, DU, HCU and so on are even shoddier than Mr. Mukherjee’s. I therefore hope that my observation regarding the higher quality of student papers and theses in IITs and IIMs now makes more sense.
- c) Questionable integrity
This brings me to the third problem. Much of Mr. Mukherjee’s muddle-headedness comes from what was colloquially termed Aunt Sally in England, but is more commonly known as the straw man fallacy. Its classic, representational form is false attribution. The first speaker makes a claim. In order to counter him, the second speaker argues against something similar-sounding, but actually quite insubstantial (hence “straw man”). Now the modified claim is easy to demolish, giving the impression that second person has won the argument, when he has not even engaged properly with the original proposition.
Take this very point about IITs and IIMs. Notice the straw man fallacy here: Mr. Mukherjee says “Most importantly, various departments, in universities like JNU and DU have contributed immensely towards the development of the respective disciplines.” But did I deny that? I only said that the quality of the student papers and theses from most Indian universities was not up to the mark. Similarly, I never created a binary, as Mr. Mukherjee puts it, between professional institutions such as IITs and IIMs and mainstream universities. The binary was created by Ms. Maitreyee Shukla, who said that the two were totally different and that comparing them was “laughable.” I only pointed out how they actually could be compared as interconnected parts of Indian higher education, but that the IITs and IIMs were better managed, with a superior work ethic and greater academic accountability.
A couple of instances of false ascription are understandable in the heat of argument. But what can one say of someone who makes not even a single correct attribution? From top to bottom, Mr. Mukherjee’s text is little other than an example of the straw man fallacy. That is because he has, either deliberately or unwittingly, misrepresented each of my ideas. Doesn’t his integrity come into question?
One more example: how, when did I make the case for the elevation of Durga into the national mother? And how come you don’t criticize the fatwa against “Bharat Mata ki jai” when the slogan implies respect not necessarily worship of an icon? Didn’t A. R. Rahman popularise “Maa tujh ko salaam” in his rendering of “Vande Mataram”? Did that make him a bad Muslim? Aren’t sacred symbols in that religion, including their prophets and holy books, accorded veneration? Then why not the motherland? Why is your criticism of religious intolerance so selective, Mr. Mukherjee? Isn’t that in itself a form of communalism if not Hindu-bashing?
False attribution, similarly, applies even to your most interesting stricture concerning the agency of students. Mr. Mukherjee, you claim that I denied agency to students: “your argument doesn’t allow the space to the students to have to have any agency of their own” and “When you say ‘they are being used’, you erase the space for any kind of agency….” In fact, a few lines later you say that I “inadvertently give the students their agency back.” It is your notion of agency, taken away and restored so facilely, that is defective.
For, surely, I never said any such thing. I was, on the contrary, critiquing the kind and quality of agency that students demonstrated when they were in the grip of certain ideologies. “Jihadi” suicide bombers also have agency. How else would they choose to blow up so many people along with themselves? But what type of agency is it? Is it sanctioned by the very religion in whose name it is being exercised? Is it ethical or responsible agency? Such are the questions I was raising.
Long ago Michael Polyani dubbed this phenomenon the “moral force of immorality … the moral appeal of [the] declared resolve to act unscrupulously.” What was Polyani unmasking? Not “Jihadism,” since it had not emerged then, but a form of totalitarian Marxism that had created havoc across the world. It was “a prophetic idealism spurning all references to ideals” so as to become a “fanatical cult of power.”
Closer home, when students allow themselves to be instrumentalised by ideologies and political parties even to the point of being brainwashed, it is not that they do not have agency. But the kind of agency that they develop and display is counter-productive to society to the point of being really dangerous. This was my point.
As a student of literature, I realised long ago that a human being embodies a potential too immense, too awesome, too precious, and too unique to be harnessed to any ideology or political programme. Isn’t this what Rohit Vemula meant when in his last letter he lamented: “The value of a man was reduced to his immediate identity and nearest possibility. To a vote. To a number. To a thing. Never was a man treated as a mind. As a glorious thing made up of star dust.” Wasn’t he protesting against such cynical instrumentalisation of precious human lives? And yet you and your ilk will not cease from instrumentalising even his suicide for your own political purposes. Ironically, you have turned Rohit’s suicide into a new version of Brahman-hatya, for which you wish to extract a heavy toll from your targeted political opponents.
Mr. Mukherjee, giving oneself over to an ideology, to be used by it and to misuse others in its name, is also the problematic in the great novels of Dostoevsky and Tagore, as I tried to argue in my “Nationalism” lecture. To preserve one’s creative capacities against the temptations and compulsions of ideologies that destroy our humanity and pit us against one another – isn’t this the real meaning of aazaadi? Isn’t it a matter of great concern when beautiful, original, young minds are yoked to negative and violent political causes? How much might they have achieved, how might they have flowered and contributed to the world! But instead, how great the loss, the waste of human potential!
When, as a teacher, I see this happening all around me, shouldn’t I raise my voice? This is a voice, I believe, of sanity, caution, moderation, a voice against extremes of fanaticism, whether of the Left or the Right. I am not partial to Dadri lynchings, looking the other way, nor silent when another young man, Sujith, is murdered in Kerala for being affiliated to the RSS and BJP.
Caravan to Nowhere
Mr. Mukherjee, at the start of your “Open Letter,” you did the honour of calling me “one of most eminent academicians” [sic] to have engaged in this debate. You also said, “I very strongly appreciate you for this.” As you warmed up you continued by calling me “a scholar of … stature” making “yet another serious argument,” linking it “quite intelligently” with what follows.
But towards the end, you suddenly lost the plot, completely flipped, or should I say flopped, over. You were “appalled” by my response, crying out against my “logical inconsistency” and “failure of logic” (as if the two mean substantially different things). You concluded, as if convinced by your own specious rhetoric: “Most of your arguments are reductionist and flawed. But it is the irresponsibility with which they are made that disturbs me.”
Really? Then why have you bothered to refute me? If there is nothing worthwhile in what I say, why take the trouble? Mr. Mukherjee, isn’t it counter-intuitive that such a sustained, hydra-headed campaign be carried out against someone who is illogical, reductionist, flawed, and whose failures are so glaring as to be almost self-evident? Two esteemed and senior Professors have written “Open Letters” against me, followed by two more by Research Scholars from JNU and DU. Why? Is it because what I say might be true, reasonable, logical and disturbing precisely because it exposes the delusions, myths, and chicanery of certain established ideological positions and practices?
Underlying your name-calling at the end is the mandatory defamation and denunciation practiced by the Left, derived, no doubt, from older Church inquisitions and crusades against heretics, apostates, renegades, and blasphemers as the prelude to their liquidation. In our more sober post-Communist times, all that is left of this diabolical institution is the rather tiresome charade of naming and shaming carried out through repetitive, shrill, silly, or clumsily crafted “Open Letters.” Fortunately, the latter only serve to expose the poverty of thought of their own authors and ideologies.
Speaking of the bankruptcy of ideas, did you know, Mr. Mukherjee, that one of the hash tags to your “Open Letter” is “Hindutva terror”? Someone certainly got carried away. Who is the “terrorist” here? You, me, or the one who posted your “Open Letter”? Never mind the stated principles of the portal’s Comments Policy that “Personal attacks are not okay.” Isn’t this a way to character assassinate someone you disagree with? Wouldn’t you call this “intellectual terrorism,” except that in this case the charge is so laughable as to be absurd? Reductio ad absurdum! – with friends like this why would you (or the Left) need enemies? (Notice how I name no names: no personal attacks, please!)
Before ending, let me remind you what you said at the outset, “My open letter to you is as much an academic exercise for me as it is political” and at the conclusion, the “one thing the discipline teaches all its students, is to ask questions.” Let me, therefore, ask you: have you considered how your “Open Letter” may have failed both as an academic and a political exercise? If so, the reason is simple: the latter does not substitute or make up for the former. You are left with “bad” academics as well as “bad” politics. You end up empty-handed. What a waste of time, energy, and human capacity! Isn’t it sad, pathetic, comic, and sometimes, truly tragic?
Unfortunately, Mr. Mukherjee, there seems to be a huge problem with certain ideologies in India. They are in denial; they simply cannot admit it, but the world has truly passed them by. Wouldn’t they benefit from some creative destruction? Since you seem so keen to be, or already are, a fellow traveller, let me offer, with due apologies to Majrooh, my own tweak of his famous lines so as to suggest where you might end up:
Main bhed-chaal hi chalaa tha jaanib-e-manzil magar
Log bichhadte gaye… karavaan ghat ta gaya
In a herd I was when I started towards my destination, but
People kept dropping out, the caravan kept dwindling
So, instead of Majrooh if you find yourself singing ekla cholo re of Tagore one day I hope you won’t be too disappointed. It may yet be the best thing that could happen to you, both politically and academically.