Friday, February 26, 2016

Limits of freedom - Autonomy for universities does not make them liberated zones

By Swapan Dasgupta

Among the unintended consequences of the storm over the separatist slogans chanted in Jawaharlal Nehru University has been the reinforcement of stereotypes. 

Earlier this week, to take a random but quite telling example, a Bharatiya Janata Party legislator from Rajasthan fulminated against the degenerate student culture of a university that is perceived to be pampered and (by Indian standards) and over-funded by the state. He revealed to stunned TV audiences that the hostels were witness to spectacular bouts of debauchery, including nude parties and orgies involving mean and women students. He declared that some 3,000 used condoms and many hundreds of liquor bottles were to be found in the piles of garbage collected from the campus each day. 

Not surprisingly, the MLA’s colourful outburst invited a great deal of mirth. Social media was flooded with asides from ‘liberals’ both tickled and angry over this needless caricature of a lifestyle that, while undoubtedly carefree (as most student lifestyles undoubtedly are), is hardly calculated to push the bounds of bohemianism. Indeed, I would like to hazard the guess that the disproportionate influence of Left thinking among the more politicised sections of the JNU student body has actually prompted a measure of contrived austerity. I could, of course, be wrong and the austerity may well be limited to economies in the purchase of quality liquor and the exhibition of sartorial scruffiness—disabilities that, more often than not, are fast cured the moment a student steps into working life. 

Whatever the reality, it quite clear that the indignant MLA had only the haziest notion of campus life. But such misconceptions are neither rare nor confined to those who are card-carrying members of the saffron brotherhood. I recall the trepidation of my parents in the early-1970s when I chose to leave Kolkata after finishing school and secure admission in Delhi’s St Stephen’s College. They had heard colourful stories of the widespread drug culture in the Delhi University campus and how students from respectable families ended up as long-haired charsis. In the United Kingdom, readers of the Daily Mail—a publication I hugely admire for its uninhibited portrayal of moral rights and wrongs and its journalistic craftmanship—still presents students as irresponsible, hard-drinking louts. And a large section of Middle England believes this portrayal of dissolute youth playing havoc with taxpayers’ money.
JNU, much more than other universities in India, has an image problem that is by no means confined to people who swear by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. First, it is perceived as a university where socially useful knowledge—such as disciplines that dominate the various Indian Institutes of Technology and the medical and engineering colleges—has been relegated to the background. The priority given to the arts (alas, now described as the social sciences) and the sheer longevity of student stays in the campus, has made it an object of suspicion in a society that values skills over pure knowledge. In the Indian tradition, there is a monastic rigour attached to the pursuit of knowledge. With its public face being presented by those who pursue studies in disciplines such as history, politics and even aesthetics, a perception has grown that JNU is an institution dedicated to the self-indulgence of a few. Ironically, the adherence to a so-called “scientific temper”, paraded as a defining hallmark of modernity, has come to haunt JNU’s emphasis on the liberal arts.  

Secondly, the scholastic reputation of universities has invariably depended on the reputation of its faculty. It is interesting that the public image of JNU has been forged, not on account of the seminal contribution of its faculty to their disciplines, but on the uniqueness of its campus life in an Indian context. The various interventions made by the friends of JNU—usually alumni in the media—have invariably stressed the so-called openness of campus culture, the ‘awareness’ underpinning student activism and the social diversity of the student body. All these attributes are important and, indeed, in most world class academic institutions as a given. However, as recent events quite vividly demonstrate, the glare on the political energy of its students has also served to highlight the relative silence on faculty contributions to particular academic disciplines. Indeed, it would seem that the alumni who have made a mark in their chosen fields have done so outside JNU. What Indira Gandhi envisaged as a “centre of excellence” when the university was established, hasn’t entirely lived up to that promise—unless the success rate in civil services examinations is the yardstick. Unfortunately, it is also true that this particular shortcoming isn’t confined to JNU alone; it extends to nearly all Indian universities. 

Finally, there has been a lot of talk in recent days about the need to promote and defend the autonomy of universities. Insofar as autonomy emphasises the need to insulate higher education from an overdose of state interference and meddlesome politicians, it is welcome. Unfortunately, the notion of autonomy that is being projected in the past fortnight in JNU and, for that matter, Jadavpur University, seems rather limited in scope. In effect, it has come to imply the establishment of a self-regulated campus fortress. In Jadavpur, the faculty joined students in creating a human chain to keep out ‘outsiders’ chanting Vande Mataram. In JNU, following the dramatised arrest of the Student’s Union president on a charge of ‘sedition’, staff and students are maintaining a vigil to prevent the police from entering the campus and apprehending other student leaders involved in the ‘azadi’ kerfuffle. The implication of both these developments is that the normal law of the land does not (or should not) apply inside the campus. There have also been muted protests to the suggestion by the Central Government that a large national flag should be permanently flown inside all Central universities. Whether in the matter of free speech or the definition of illegality, the underlying suggestion is that the campus is a sacred space that somehow falls outside state jurisdiction. 

As a loose statement of belief that heavy-handed policing should be avoided and that universities should resolve disputes without outside involvement, the principle of autonomy is unexceptionable. The problem arises when the position is taken to absurd extremes and the campus is declared a de-facto ‘liberated zone’ where consensual decencies can be disregarded. It is instructive to recall that in the 1970s, the hostels of Jadavpur became armed fortresses, with Naxalites calling the shots. It was also the campus where the Vice Chancellor was hacked to death by students proclaiming ‘China’s chairman is our Chairman.’   

Clearly no two situations are alike. But to prevent the law from taking its course because the campus community has prejudged otherwise, strike me as extending the notion of autonomy from the sublime to the ridiculous. There is a compelling case against policemen unable to appreciate the convergences and divergences of the far-Left vis a vis Kashmiri separatists. But one case of overkill cannot be countered by alternative grandstanding, as is happening in both Delhi and Kolkata. 

Mocking the philistinism of the ‘Right’ makes good copy, especially when it is twinned with a larger battle to bring down a regime through a thousand cuts. But the liberal intelligentsia and its young fellow-travellers must seriously ask whether the populist distaste for spoilt brats is based entirely on ‘false consciousness’ or, worse, ‘Hindu cretinism’. 

The Telegraph, February 26, 2016

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Desh ke 33 budhijivion ne jnu mamle par ek chitti jaari Ki

पिछले दिनों दिल्ली के जवाहर लाल नेहरू विश्वविद्यालय में जो घटना घटी वह चिन्ताजनक है। शैक्षणिक परिसरों में नियोजित ढंग से देश विरोधी नारे हमारी चेतना को झकझोरते हैं। देश के नामी शैक्षणिक परिसर में यह दुआ पढ़ी जाय कि ‘भारत तेरे टुकड़े होंगे इंशा अल्लाह, इंशा अल्लाह’। विश्वविद्यालय में भारत की बर्बादी का संकल्प लिया जाय। संसद पर हमला करने वाले अफजल गुरू को शहीद घोषित किया जाय। यह शर्मनाक और व्यथित करने वाला है। हम इसे देशविरोधी ताकतों की सुनियोजित साजिश मानते हैं। हमें यकीन है कि सोच के स्तर पर ऐसे नारे लगाने वाले लोग आतंकवादी मौलाना मसूद अजहर से कम खतरनाक नहीं है।
सत्ता प्रतिष्ठान के खिलाफ वैचारिक असहमति का हम स्वागत करते हैं। लेकिन देशद्रोह की कीमत पर नहीं। जो लोग ऐसे नारों को देशद्रोह नहीं मानते उन्हें देशप्रेमी भी नहीं कहा जा सकता है। जे.एन.यू. की घटना एक खतरे का संकेत है। इस खतरे से सतर्क होने के बजाए कुछ लोग इसे अभिव्यक्ति की आजादी की आड़ में ढक रहे हैं। यह अभिव्यक्ति की आजादी कैसे हो सकती है जिसमें अपने राष्ट्र के प्रति कोई आस्था न हो? जो नफरत पैदा करती है। जो देश के सर्वोच्च न्यायिक फैसले पर सवाल उठाती हो। इन कुत्सित ताकतों के समर्थन में भी कुछ लोग राजनैतिक फायदे के लिए खडे हो गए है। जो यह भूल जाते हैं कि अफजल गुरू का महिमा मण्डन देश की प्रभुसत्ता, सुप्रीम कोर्ट, राष्ट्रपति और संसद का अपमान है।
असहमति और बहस के हक के हम हिमायती हैं। पर क्या देश की बर्बादी और कश्मीर की आजादी के लिए बहस होनी चाहिए। क्या देश को सोलह टुकड़े करने की मांग पर बहस की गुंजाइश है। क्या अफजल गुरू की फांसी और इण्डिया गो बैक के नारे असहमति के दायरे में आते हैं। आप बेशक नरेन्द्र मोदी से नफरत करें। भाजपा से घृणा करें। पर देश से तो प्यार करें। यह कौन सी वैचारिक आजादी है ! कि जो नारे सीमा पार से लगे। जो कश्मीर में अलगाववादियों के घरों से लगाये जाये। वहीं दिल्ली और जादवपुर के शैक्षणिक परिसरों से भी लगे। और उसके भी समर्थन में वैचारिक जुगाली करते कुछ विवेक शून्य लोग खड़े हों।
हमारा मानना है कि देश विरोधी ताकतों ने एक षड़यंत्र के तहत लोगों को भड़काने के लिए यह कारवाई की है। ताकि लोग भड़के और इसे देशव्यापी राजनैतिक ध्रुवीकरण का स्वरूप दिया जाय। साजिश रचने वालों को यह भी मालूम है कि ऐसा करने से सरकार इसे रोकने का अपना काम करेगी। और फिर इसे सरकारी दमन और आपातकाल से बुरा घोषित कर अस्थिरता का माहौल बनाया जाएगा। हम कथित देशभक्तों की हिंसा का भी समर्थन नहीं करते। पहले असहिष्णुता पर देश में माहौल बनाने की कोशिश हुई। फिर दलित छात्र उत्पीड़न का बनावटी माहौल बना। जब वो सब नहीं चले तो अब वैचारिक आजादी की आड़ में देश विरोधी साजिश। हम इस साजिश की निंदा और विरोध करते हैं और आमजन से अपील करते हैं कि वे इन देशद्रोही ताकतों के मंसूबों को कामयाब न होने दें।  

Appeal of 33 citizens on the assault on India's nationhood

Jawaharlal Nehru University was never a bastion of open debate

By Swapan Dasgupta

During the course of the acrimonious exchanges over a series of incidents that originated in Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, some commentators alluded to a controversial motion—“This House would not in any circumstances fight for King and Country”—that was passed by the Oxford Union in 1933. The argument was that universities are natural centres of heretical and unconventional views and that the authorities should not over-react. 

Whether or not the Union Home Ministry and the Delhi Police were guilty of astonishing stupidity by charging an excitable student politician with sedition for hobnobbing and sharing a platform with separatists is an issue that will prompt different responses. In 1933, for example, Winston Churchill described the Oxford students who voted for the grandstanding motion as “abject, squalid, shameless and nauseating”—sentiments that many who don’t possess the same measure of erudition would echo in the case of the JNU radicals. Indeed, the reaction of British society to the Oxford poseurs was unwaveringly hostile and evidence of universities harbouring spoilt brats. Likewise, there is little doubt that had the provocative slogans championing the breakup of India been chanted in public—and not within the safe haven of the campus or, indeed, the Delhi Press Club—the street reaction would not have been couched in niceties. 

Echoes of a similar town-gown divide appear to be quite evident in the furore over the sedition charges levelled against a student—not that this excuses the disgraceful behaviour of some lawyers in Delhi’s Patiala Court. But what has complicated the situation is that the political opponents of the Narendra Modi government ranging from the Congress to the Maoists have joined hands to scream fascism. The assault on the government has been complemented by the international rent-a-cause brigade that has become accustomed to circulating pious petitions on issues that range from who Indians should not vote for to the state of higher education in India. 

Part of the problem stems from the caricatured views the Indian Right and Left-Liberals have of each other, a process the civil war of journalists has added to. In the normal course, universities should have been a forum for informed and intelligent conversations. Even if a dialogue didn’t narrow the political divide, it would have prevented demonology and the near-complete absence of social interaction and the ostracism of those who violate a consensus—Arnab Goswami is the most recent target. 

To blame this ghettoisation on the Modi regime is being disingenuous. Contrary to recent mythology, JNU wasn’t ever the bastion of free, open and convivial debate. There was a pre-determined view of what was acceptable and what was beyond the pale. In political terms, openness meant a dialogue that involved all the 57 varieties of Marxism, Nehruvian and Lohia-ite thought and, the new fangled ‘alternative’ currents emerging from Left orphanages. In recent years, and partly as a response to bleeding hearts in Western universities, even Islamism has been accommodated under the radical roof. What has been consistently shown the door are India’s indigenous conservative traditions and their contemporary expressions. 

This exclusionary process was confirmed in a recent article upholding the ‘idea’ of JNU by an alumnus, Professor Peter DeSouza: “the liberal persuasion was not allowed the space it should have been given by the Stalinist Left. The political spectrum was wide but could have been wider. Analytical thinking was feeble and ideological camps gave protection to the less capable.” JNU reproduced itself ideologically over decades, a reason why its intellectual Establishment initially thought there was nothing odd about students being associated with divisive slogans. The ‘sedition’ overkill provided an escape route from troubling questions centred on JNU’s relationship with nationhood.

The ideological bubble that sustained JNU was shaken by the post-2014 political change. The exclusion of its stalwarts from the new Establishment has bred insecurity and added to its determination to paint the ‘outlanders’ as cretinous, semi-educated and aesthetically suspect. This phenomenon was also in evidence last week in the post-modernist ghettos of Jadavpur University. 

The ‘sedition’ stir will pass but the partition pangs of Indian academia will have to be addressed. The question of whether India is merely a geographical mass or is also blessed with sacredness will be a basis of a wider polarisation. 

Sunday Times of India, February 21, 2016


The sedition debate and the different versions of the Indian nation

By Swapan Dasgupta

Every controversy generates a great deal of heat and dust. More often than not they Also tend to be ephemeral, forgotten by the time the next ‘news break’ preoccupies the chattering classes. Having played out for an entire week or more, the storm over the demonstrations in Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University is drawing to a closure—with a lot of loose ends that will still have to be tied, but probably out of sustained media attention. However, from a larger perspective, there are themes that stand out and which could do with some serious examination. 

Let me look at one: the contentious sedition law in the India Penal Code, now debunked by many as a “colonial” law that should be scrapped. That alien rulers who ruled through a blend of collaboration and coercion need punitive action against certain forms of disloyalty to the Crown is not in doubt. The corresponding argument is that since sovereignty now rests in the people of India, terms such as sedition and disloyalty no longer need to be codified in the statute books. Whereas helping an enemy country through active treason can be dealt with through the provisions of the Official Secrets Act, no actionable law, it has been suggested, is needed to deal with those who have learnt to drink from the cup of azadi. In other words, or so it is being claimed, there would have been no controversy over the student demonstration in JNU had the Indian state not internalised the doctrine of sedition. Had the boisterous show of solidarity with the cause that propelled Afzal Guru, executed for his involvement in the attack on the Indian Parliament, become a threat to public peace, the problem, it is argued, could have been dealt by invoking laws that are less draconian than the one relating to sedition. 

Since the sedition laws have been in the statute books without break since August 15, 1947, it is disingenuous to blame the Narendra Modi government for invoking an existing law. While there may be legitimate differences of opinion on whether Kanhaiya Kumar, the student at the centre of the controversy, had done anything that was seditious, invoking the law does not per se establish the government’s mala fide intentions. The suggestion that the young, and somewhat excitable and even gullible, lad with an overdose of radical pretensions should be treated with indulgence is an emotional argument—and one that I have a great of personal sympathy with. But expediency and selective indignation do not make for upright statecraft. Either India should get Parliament to scrap the sedition law or it should apply them fairly and even indiscriminately. That also implies that the applicability of the sedition law in any particular case should be left to the courts rather than to either Noam Chomsky and Romila Thapar or TV anchors, whether xenophobic or a friend of Dawood Ibrahim. 

Assuming the political class takes a second look at the sedition laws, the next question that arises is whether loyalty to the nation and its integrity should be made obligatory for a law-abiding citizen? Should disrespecting the flag (intentionally) be retained as an offence? Or should India move into the orbit of permissive nationhood where the sole test of belonging is a travel document or a relevant visa? Everything else being a matter of individual tastes or political preferences. 

At one level the debate is centred on the symbolic—standing up for the national anthem, honouring the flag, adhering to the Constitution, etc. The more substantive issue is whether commitment to the nation should also include a corresponding intolerance of those groups or individuals that seek the destruction of the Indian Union, perhaps through violence. Here the differences are far more basic. 

The uber liberals in media and academia think of India as a geographical entity bound together by a common Constitution. By this logic, the basis of nationhood is negotiable and even dependant on prevailing fashion—recall the inclusion of ‘socialist’ and ‘secular’ in the Preamble (aka ‘basic structure’) in 1976, under questionable circumstances. More to the point, in this perception Indian nationhood is not really compromised if either the national flag is turned into clothing (as routinely happens in the US and now the UK) or Kashmir or chunks of the North-east are detached from the country’s national boundaries. By this logic, if a JNU student has chanted slogans promoting the physical breakup of India into tiny pieces, it is no big deal. 

There is another point of view which may seem crass to intellectuals but which resonates among a wider constituency. This sees India not merely as a geographical mass that extends from Kashmir to Kannyakumari, but also as a venerable deity. Bharat Mata is merely one manifestation of this transformation of nationalism into sacred geography. Different communities have different ways of expressing the divinity of the motherland/homeland. Consequently, the casual indifference with which a section of the students in JNU and Jadavpur University perceived territoriality was interpreted by others as sacrilege. This does not condone the boisterous aggression of some lawyers in Patiala Court. But understanding the sacredness of nationalism may go some way in understanding why the ideas of nationalism conveyed to the country by those who fought the election on the “idea of India” aren’t unchallenged. 

It would be useful to have a civilised debate, extending over a period of time and not limited to TV studios, on the relevance or otherwise of the sedition laws. India may even emerge from the bouts of slogan shouting, not to mention a vicious civil war in the media, a little more enlightened. 

Sunday Pioneer, February 21, 2016

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