Looking ‘Right’, Talking ‘Liberal’ – The Twists and Turns of Makarand Paranjape: Anirban Bhattacharya


[This missive to Makarand Paranjape, who is a professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University, comes in response to his recent op-ed piece in the Indian Express where he comments on the events at Ramjas College, Delhi University on the 21st of February and in their wake, in Delhi University, on the 22nd of February]

Mr. Makarand Paranjape. In your analysis of the post-Ramjas fallout in Delhi University in Indian Express on the 4th of March, one can see that you have donned a “liberal” cloak. But there were way too many holes in that cloak to go without a counter and hence this response.

While referring to the churning across universities, at the very outset you say:

If we care to examine these outrages dispassionately, without a prior investment in one politically determined outcome, a totally different picture might emerge, not only of what’s actually happening in India, but also how our analysis is the prisoner of category confusion.

No, Mr. Paranjape. At the least you ought to be true to your own commitments. In any case, the government of the day has left far too less space for anyone to be that “dispassionate” fence-sitter refereeing on both sides. But even if one were to imagine such a role hypothetically for someone, you Mr. Paranjape cannot really play that role, can you? Just for the purpose of an editorial in a newspaper, you cannot place yourself as someone who has no “prior investment” on any one side. That would be just convenience Mr. Paranjape. Particularly after being so heavily and so brazenly “invested” on the side of the Hindutva fascists, on the side of the rulers. Please bear with me, because I would over here take the liberty of quoting your own words bit at length Mr. Paranjape from a piece you wrote September last year. You wrote, and I quote:

“The idea of Narendra Modi is more important than Narendra Modi himself. Because it is this idea of Modi—at once larger, more powerful, and far-reaching in its appeal than the man—that can be the catalyst for change and the driver for the transformation of India… Indians were tired of weak, wishy-washy, and indecisive leaders. Modi demonstrates strength and commitment. At his best, he can also be inspiring and visionary.”

After such a passionate eulogy for your “supreme leader”, Mr. Paranjape, please don’t claim to analyse the current churning in universities “dispassionately”. Admit it that you are here to bat for him, his party, the RSS, and its students’ wing – the ABVP who were responsible for the hooliganism they displayed in Ramjas and in its aftermath.  Having set the record straight in terms of your locus standi, now let’s move on to your next instance of craftsmanship.

I can see that you have found yourself in a difficult spot. After the lumpenism, the stone-pelting on a seminar room, the death threats, the rape threats, open violence and goondaism on the part of the ABVP with full impunity from those in khaki that made news, it was difficult even for you to defend the indefensible. With your grip over rhetorical twists, you had no option but to turn the perpetrator into the ‘poor victims’ of a “well-laid trap” or a ‘conspiracy’ as you call it.

So, according to you, Umar Khalid, Shehla Rashid, the other speakers from the left/democratic forces and the conniving organizers had laid a “trap”. A simple seminar on the cultures of protest – talking about issues from poetry to literature, from Bastar to Kashmir, from homosexuality to caste – in Ramjas was in your words actually “planted with the intention of causing unrest”. And the “innocent” macho-thugs of the Parishad with their hockey sticks and bricks simply got entrapped and I suppose “ended up” hurling abuses and blows on the “evil” forces of reason – the common students of the campus. Poor souls. Right? Your piece is clearly crafted to evoke a certain amount of sympathy I suppose for the “sentimental” saffron bunch who ended up yet again with a hurt sentiment ready to draw blood. So, in your imagination any free exchange of ideas in an academic environ, any programme to tie together the various voices of dissent vis-à-vis the status quo is to be looked upon as a deliberate act of “conspiracy” designed to invite stone-pelting. Certainly this speaks volumes about your definition of legitimate dissent. But, let’s move on.

You over here actually seem to be doing a post-match media-brief donning the role of a coach of the Team ABVP who seem to have lost a match against the Best/Rest of DU on the 21st of February. Most comically you seem to be suggesting that the Team ABVP just got carried away in the slog-overs and in a spree of hitting around the park ended up losing wickets. In your piece, you seem to be giving them tips as to how to not lose “public sympathy” of the gallery instead of “breaking laws” and fistfights. You seem to be mildly chiding them and lecturing them about the virtues of “open debate” or such other “alternatives” like “blocking the entrance to the college, lying down on the steps of the seminar hall, outshouting and outsmarting the separatist slogan-shouters”. You ask them to “learn from their senior partners, the BJP.” You suggest a “complete makeover, including smarter spokespersons, more female faces and, above all, much better strategy on how to counter their ideological opponents”.

In your liberal garb, you may actually end up sounding “reasonable” when you try to deliver a lesson or two to your team in “democratic dissent”. But Mr. Paranjape, pause for a moment. You cannot first create a Frankenstein and then pretend to put a leash on it. You are missing, or much rather deliberately sidestepping certain more fundamental questions here about your team.

One cannot simply “play” democratic one fine day. It comes with a certain politics, it requires a democratic outlook, an acumen for debate, a respect for difference, a breakaway from the narrative of status quo. All of this requires a political grooming in progressive values which arms one with the strength and conviction to not just debate but to confront and withstand the powers that. It requires a belief in social transformation, in change for the better. Your team, the Parishad, on the other hand is bred in hatred, in xenophobia, in Brahmanical arrogance and misogyny. Far from questioning the feudal common-sense, far from swimming against the tide for change, it is taught to defend the status-quo. Drunk in power, sheltered in impunity, it is only trained in arm-twisting to gag the voices for change. It reflects in their language, in their slogans and in their purpose as it did in Rohith’s HCU in 2015, or after 9th February last year in JNU, and even in the aftermath of 21st February this year in DU. “If you keep ranting this way, you may join Vemula soon”. “Bhaag randi bhaag”. “Gujarat ke dangaiyon ko…ek mauka aur do”. “Khoon se karo tilak, goliyon se aarti”. These are some of their slogans or statements we are familiar with. We are also aware of the fate of Najeeb in JNU who was assaulted by the ABVP the night before his “disappearance”. We are aware of the institutional murder of Rohith and the part played by the ABVP. We are aware that the same evening they vandalised in Ramjas, right after they also disrupted a program of Pinjda Tod, a woman’s collective in DU and then went ahead with the most obnoxious rape threats to Gurmeher Kaur along with a full-fledged character assassination campaign.

Now, you may in your liberal pretence in your piece sermonize these goons about not being “enraged bulls” at the sight of us, but of course you have nothing to say about these innate qualities that they have acquired though their RSS pedigree. Now you can’t really expect them to just “play” democratic one fine day, can you? And please don’t hide behind the false equation of the vandalism of ABVP with the protests in minority institutions. We may have our qualified differences on various counts, but in no stretch of imagination do we equate the two. While one has no backing or sanction, the other (i.e., your Team ABVP) has the blessings of the entire state machinery – from the police to the media. And this is what makes them un-comparable variables, this is what makes the latter most venomous and dangerous in our country.

This finally takes us to the end of your piece. And here I feel you are most revealing as also most committed to your larger goal. You say, the ‘final solution’ is to “restore academics to our campuses and get party politics out”. You take the example of IITs and IIMs and other technical institutions that you say are “thriving without it”.  You conclude that “party-driven politics of the sort we have seen at our leading universities is like the kiss of death.” Five points in ascending order:

  1. The way you hierarchise “technical” institutions, it reeks of your disdain, and that of your masters for social sciences, for socially relevant research that inculcate criticality which is much relevant not just humanities, but even for technical courses if we are to qualitatively contribute to an ailing society. You want to shut down that criticality in thought that asks unpalatable questions, that far from just being cogs and wheels, is actually sensitive to the needs of the people of this country. The recent assaults on research as per the UGC guidelines are aimed at the same, isn’t it?
  2. For you academics and politics may seem to run contrary to each other, for us, our academics is very much guided by our politics. After all, under the assault of saffronization, what we can read, what we can’t; under the writ of Manu, who can access higher education and who can’t; under the knife of privatization, who can afford its cost and who can’t – if all of this affects our academics, then certainly we ought to be political.
  3. Certainly organized forces did share its responsibility in voicing dissent, but more than what you spitefully call “party-politics”, it is the shared outrage of the (un)common students en-masse in FTII, HCU, JNU, and now in DU that have been the driving force in the movements across universities against the lumpenism of Team ABVP.
  4. So, in the garb of prioritizing “academics”, in the garb of badmouthing “party-driven” politics (given the fact that even ABVP is “party-driven”,) what you actually want to stamp out from universities is dissent, opposing opinions – be it left, Ambedkarite or anything. (Your predecessors with their Lyngdoh Committee Recommendations under the diktats of the Birlas and Ambanis in fact envisaged the same – to root out “unnecessary politicization” of campuses.)
  5. Taking a cue from your above argument, if getting rid of the multiplicity of opposing views, of dissenting voices is the suggested remedy for universities today, then I am sure it provides the perfect vantage point to claim the same remedy for the entire country tomorrow. Isn’t it Mr. Paranjape. One man, one nation, under your “Yug Pusrush”? Isn’t this the “nation-wide” change you envisage at the end of your piece?

You accuse us of making a “mountain (movement) out of a molehill”. Mr. Paranjape, the corporate-driven war on the adivasis to displace them from their land and livelihood; the question of self-determination of oppressed nationalities; the struggle of the Dalits against the Brahmanical stranglehold over resources and dignity; the assertion of homosexuals and of women against feudal-patriarchal moralism; the plight of the 90% informal workforce with no labour rights; the question of farmers’ suicides and land-grab; or our inalienable right to dissent might appear to be “molehills” to you. But for those of us whom you call “agents provocateurs”, these are real questions worth fighting for in order to build a real democracy, a real “Azaadi”. And our thoughts shall certainly always sound “provocative” to the likes of you.  As someone said, “stop playing the (court) clown with your daily exhibitions of nitwittery”!

Anirban Bhattacharya is a researcher, recently graduated from Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) and has been associated with the Bhagat Singh-Ambedkar Student Organization (BASO)

One thought on “Looking ‘Right’, Talking ‘Liberal’ – The Twists and Turns of Makarand Paranjape: Anirban Bhattacharya”

  1. well said…,while there are other dimensions, too, that need to be taken up, to recognise venom for what it is, is to clear the space for more meaningful debates and doings….


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