Fifty Shades of Grey – Without the Thrills

[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.

  1. 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 (

  1. 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.

  1. 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.


12 thoughts on “Fifty Shades of Grey – Without the Thrills

  1. jdevika

    Interesting. Yet this response has some of the very same faults it accuses Mr Mukherjee of! It takes up issues selectively, ignores inconvenient questions, and uses the straw man fallacy in no small measure. Sadly, it has very little beyond the by-now common Hindutvavaadi claims – for example that the Dadri lynching and the murder of the RSS supporter in north Kerala are equally reprehensible, and therefore there is nothing further to read except that both the RSS and the CPM are equally bad. That these events have very different histories, contexts, and consequences seems least important to Hindutvavaadi ideologues! Dr Paranjape reminds me of Prof M G S Narayanan in Kerala, a fine historian and surely, a fine human being, who was provoked by the mindlessness of CPM intellectuals and his rage was such that ended up with just the Hindutvavaadi arguments. The scenario evoked in Prof Paranjape’s potshot against Kafila at the very end reminds me of the situation he finds himself in: all alone. The CPM in Kerala is as mindless as ever, and the Hindutvavaadis can never stand anyone capable of thinking. And those of us on the left who are certainly no easy pals of the CPM, naturally, think of him as a wasted mind.

    Also, it was I who inadvertently added the tag Hndutva terror to the open letter. It was a mistake – I had wanted to use the Hindutva tag. However, reading this response, it appears to me that perhaps I was partially right, because this response is a classic example of how a senior and more experienced academic can terrorise a student by repeatedly referring to the latter’s academic incompetency while committing quite similar omissions in his own arguments!

    1. Off topic, sorry. Yes, MGS is indeed a fine historian. But, sometimes, like all of us I am afraid, there is a tendency to be myopic. It is a common fault among us all – that we tend to appropriate things not in evidence as our own as long as there is a tenuous connection. For example if I were a Malayali I too would be tempted to include Tulunadu as one of the many Keralas or claim that Kasargod was historically a part of Kerala, never mind the Kannad and Tulu people living there for generations.
      If we travel on some bus driven by an incompetent or even drunken driver and we end up in some smash-up, we would be tempted to defend that very driver whom we would otherwise chastise. So this kind of temptation to expand things/concepts/regions/languages as belonging to us versus “the others” is a common enough phenomenon. But to rely on Keralolpathi for any concrete evidence on history is somewhat questionable. Myths and legends may indeed be rooted in facts and actual events and incidents. But they certainly cannot be made a part of history. I am grateful to MGS for so much information on Kerala, but sometimes I wonder if we should take some of it with a pinch of salt. Sorry for the off-topic comment, I was just wondering how if he were a hindutvavaadi he could have been removed from ICHR for opposing MMJ. Late bitter realization of having tied up with the wrong people? Or, did the other side mistake him for one of their own -malleable and pliant?

      1. jdevika

        I agree, Tejaswi. MGS is a complex figure and someday I would even want to study his intellectual and political trajectories. He wasn’t what the hindutva bigots wanted for sure but his scholarship can definitely be questioned especially from the newer perspectives that expose the claim of such scholarship to objectivity.

        1. maheshm04

          J Devika comes across as .. The one who always has access to the newest perspectives.. Kudos on ur courage ( some shot people may use the word audacity) to judge all sorts of people.. from MGS to Namo to …

  2. Pardon me, good professor, I am slightly illiterate and severely under-educated. However, have you ever tried to discover the definition of “monochromatic”?

    It is very nice to come down like a ton of bricks on a “poor scholar” whose English vocabulary and grammar might not match yours. The sneers and the patronizing tone belies the words that state “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.” Well, that is exactly what you have done, without substantially answering any one of the arguments put forth by that “ill-equipped” scholar. I think it is churlish to pick on the grammar and the “tautologies” that you pointed out.

    However, “logical inconsistencies” and “failures of logic” are, indeed, substantially different. How you could possibly presume that they are the one and the same escapes me. And since you are a “master” of the language and literature, would it be possible for you to proof your own reply? in order to correct some of the grammatical errors that have crept in as well? But, no, that might be asking for too much. It would probably offend you too much to be questioned about your own grammar. Thank you for sending that wonderfully sarcastic, but inconsequential, missive from the heights of Olympus.

    Now, before you accuse me of being one more of those who want to “insert themselves in the network of left-cronyism”, let me tell you that I am not affiliated with any left parties nor am I a young student out to be “brainwashed” by ideologies. Just an aging cripple. For all that, I urge you to redraft a reply and write once more, this time addressing the points that the “bad scholars” raised. But, I am afraid you are busy patting yourself on your “successful” and ‘sledge-hammer like reply’ to the impudent upstart. As you said, but as a kind of insult to the chap – “But instead, how great the loss, the waste of human potential!”… why could you not be a decent human and a far kinder professor?

    By the way, before I forget, your titillating title shows up as too-clever-by-half nonsense. I am sure you have gloated enough about your clever headline and how “in touch and hep” you are. Here is the wiki definition of monochromatic:
    Do you see how it seems to encompass all the colours of a certain hue, which includes shades/tints/tones etc? Oh, but wait, you just wanted to show off your taste in literature. Oh well, so be it. Pity! “What a waste of time, energy, and human capacity! Isn’t it sad, pathetic, comic, and sometimes, truly tragic?”

  3. Mohammed Akhlaq Killers also have agency. How else would they choose to kill him for merely having mutton in his refrigerator?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.

  4. “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.”

    It seems you would want the right to support the “extreme fanaticism of the Right” while calling yourself a voice of sanity, caution, moderation but do not want to give the same right to support to others. The students in this case then become brainwashed and must bear the full force of the State Machinery whether in JNU or in Hyderabad.

  5. Dear Prof Paranjape

    Thanks a lot for your amusing reply. Once I overcame the initial amusement after reading your letter, I realised that you have actually not engaged with or replied to any of the important questions I raised. You are interested in everything related to me( my past training, my present confusion and dullness my future students). I wish you were equally interested in answering my questions rather than conveniently evading them. I can again write a long rejoinder, pointing out in public how your letter is a perfect exponent of the flaws you accuse me of having. But, that to my mind would be a waste of time. Therefore, I am writing a short response to you here.

    I think I should at least give two examples. Lets take the IIT issue. In your latest rejoinder to my letter you wrote, “I only said that quality of student papers and theses are not up to the mark.” But did you really say that? You actually said, “these institutions (IITs and IIMs) also give research degrees, such as, PhDs, even in Humanities and Social Sciences. Do you know that more often than not, their theses are far better than ours?”Do you understand the difference between what you said back then and what you are saying now? Now, you are saying that theses from universities like JNU and DU are not upto the mark, back then you said IIT and IIM theses were better. The difference is, dear sir, in creating a binary. I will not blame you for trying to mislead me or the readers. I would most certainly not question your integrity. But I would congratulate myself for making you shift your position. I am happy, that my letter had not been completely futile. Though I cant stop myself but to think who defines this mark? And what is this mark?

    Now let me talk about the question of agency. In my rejoinder, I tried to show that in your arguments, you inadvertently snatch agency from students and also give it back, when it is convenient. I wanted to show how your argument tear itself apart because of its inner contradiction about agency. In your latest response you have written, “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 don’t have agency. But the kind of agency that they develop and display is counter-productive to society to the point of being really dangerous.” I must again congratulate myself for the fact that now you at least accept that students allow themselves to be brainwashed. But I want to ask, how can someone allow themselves to be brainwashed? If he or she is ‘allowing’, then where is the need of ‘brainwashing’? I am sure a scholar of your calibre will understand this irony in you statement . But, again you couldn’t help yourself but to fall in the same trap when in your final ‘tweak’ (sic) of Majrooh’s lines, you say, “Mai bhed-chaal hi chalta raha tha janib-e-manzil magar…”. Unable to logically counter, terrified by any independent scholar with critical thinking, incapable to give a space to his/her critical thought you are left with no option but to completely reduce him to a sheep. Your words ‘bhed-chaal’ is quite suggestive in this regard.

    Those who will read the debate will surely recognise the ‘man’ in the ‘straw man fallacy’. But I have one last thing to say. You have repeated the same problems again, albeit in a much more violent way. One of my intentions to write a rejoinder to you was to tell you that I am not a part of ‘left’. By your logic everyone critical of you ( and fascism) has to be clubbed together as the scary left. I also understand that Kafila becomes a subject of constant sarcasm and pun in your statements (they are not arguments). Was my rejoinder to you, so detestable or scary to deserve attacks not only for me but also Kafila? What do you mean by ‘joining Kafila’ and becoming a left crony? By the same logic I can accuse you of joining Swarajya Mag (a vociferous supporter of Modi Sarkar) and in the process becoming a fascist-crony. Don’t worry I wont accuse you of that. I was just trying to understand your logic (sic).

    Sir, I am personally in support of all kinds of voices, sane or insane, as long as one is allowed to question those voices. My idea was to critically engage with you in a public space. It was not the ‘worth’ of what you said that made me write to you but the ‘unworthiness’. As I said, I found your arguments not only flawed but irresponsible. I found them misleading. That’s why I wanted to engage with you in a public space. The space was also an important factor. Finally, regarding ‘ekla cholo re’. Sir, I think the importance of this song actually lies not in ‘ekla chola’ (walking alone) but the importance lies in making people aware of one’s cause when one is walking alone, only to gather a larger support for one’s cause not for one’s self. Hence, I wouldn’t mind singing the song because that will actually lead to, ‘the best thing that could happen to me, both politically and academically’.

  6. SunaliniK

    Prof Paranjpe, a point-by-point refutation, which you promise but don’t deliver, would have been nice. Alas! You have unleashed rather, critiques of the Left which are as old as the Left itself, and a whole bunch of adjectives.

  7. I wonder why Prof Paranjape couldnt reply to even one of the comments here ( where his rejoinder to me was originally posted) and yet post his rejoinder to me on Swarajya Mag. Instead of publishing the same rejoinder again at a different place, an answer here would have been better. (Sic)
    Talking about factual innacuracy, Swarajya mag claims that I am a research scholar from JNU. Perhaps they should atleast have read my letter first.

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