The rise of JNU student leader Kanhaiya Kumar and his band of comrades will have enhanced the prestige and underscored the significance of the social sciences-humanities. This is because these are precisely the subjects Kanhaiya and his friends study.
They have not only upturned the stereotyping of the social sciences-humanities, which have been stigmatised in the popular consciousness for long, but will likely inspire students in high schools and colleges to emulate the leaders in studying the subjects that have given them such a sharp edge.
Ironically, their rise will turn parents apprehensive of the social sciences, to which will be ascribed the radical politics of JNU, perceived dangerous by the more conservative older generation.
It won’t just be because of what the social sciences taught Kanhaiya and his band, but also because these subjects are perceived to provide ample time to students to while away. Parents will invoke that asinine cliché — an idle mind is the devil’s workshop — to justify their fears
There are two principal reasons for the stigmatisation of social sciences.
One, it is considered a risky proposition to study these subjects, which do not ensure a job, let alone a high-paying one. By contrast, engineering or medical or management studies are said to guarantee a livelihood.
From the first reason flows the second. Since there exists a hierarchy of subjects, on the pinnacle of which are the sciences, it is presumed a student opts for the social sciences only in the absence of any other choice. After all, a student, it is argued, can switch from the science stream to the humanities in college, but cannot do it the other way round.
In this debate, therefore, the factors of aptitude and inclination are discounted. These are seen as dubious arguments to portray compulsion as choice. From this perspective, the “intelligent” or “brainy” students are the science types, the rest less so.
This popular belief, or stereotyping, of subjects and their students have been left shattered as Kanhaiya and his comrades hop from one campus to another, critiquing not only the government but also society and polity. Their critique, no doubt, is from the perspective of the Left, but it does have the intellectual heft — and style — many of our seasoned politicians, including Rahul Gandhi, do not possess.
Their critique is intelligible and engaging and full of mirth. They are what they are also because they are students of the social sciences, evident from their speeches. It is more likely for a non-science student than a science one to point out to journalists, as Kanhaiya did after his release from incarceration, the difference between deshdrohi (anti-national) and rajdrohi (anti-state or anti-government).
But what is even more significant is that they are socially-conscionable and sensitive to the suffering of masses. Their empathy appears real to their listeners. But they also possess the rare analytical skills, acquired through their years of doing their respective PhD programmes, to deconstruct the social system to explain the appalling socioeconomic inequities of our society and existing structures of dominance.
Partly, their sensitivity — as also rage — arises because some of them have experienced a paucity of resources. But a large part of it is because of their grounding in the social sciences and the humanities. These are the subjects that create and preserve collective memory.
It is our collective memory that contributes to our identity — of what we were, and what we are, and what we wish to become. Its successive layers tell us tales of dominance and subjugation, hope and hopelessness. It outlines the contours of change and locates us as a group, as also an individual, in driving it. From the experiences coded in collective memory, we have evolved a sense of what policies and actions are inimical to our communitarian living — and those that are beneficial.
This is one reason why in the speeches of Kanhaiya and others you have glimpses from the past.
You hear of BR Ambedkar, Jyotiba Phule, Sant Tukaram, and Kabir and, in the same breath, you are told of how the caste system shackles social groups. It is because of their social science background that Ambedkar is linked to Karl Marx, Phule with Vladimir Lenin, caste with class — a linkage the veterans of Left could never forge so effortlessly with such panache, and eliciting such a response.
The sciences, commerce, engineering or medical studies, and commerce do not inculcate in the students the same sense and sensitivity to the past as the social sciences do. Technical education, for instance, has as its obsession the present, the here and now. Its theme is efficiency through changes technological in nature.
Technological changes transform the material life of human beings as also them. But studying this change in human beings and how they organise themselves as a collective is the staple of social science studies. It creates a register of who gains and who loses out in the transformation — and why the losers languish on the margins. It asks the question: Who enjoys better access to technology, and why?
These issues do not overly concern the sciences, though there are exceptions among some of its students. It doesn’t, for instance, interrogate the distribution of power and wealth in society. Rather it adjusts to it for achieving its goals. In this sense it is status quo-ist, not so the social sciences.
It isn’t, therefore, a coincidence that Kanhaiya and other JNU students who have been in the limelight recently have a non-science background. Kanhaiya is in International Studies, Anirban Bhattacharya and Umar Khalid are doing their PhDs in history, Rama Naga is writing his MPhil thesis on agrarian relations and the role of the corporate sector, and Ashutosh Kumar is engaged in Russian Studies.
You have Mujeeb Gattoo doing a PhD in education — he is one of the two who was surprisingly punished by the JNU authorities. Even the ABVP’s Saurabh Sharma, an opponent of Kanhaiya and his friends, has a social science background.
A little different from them is Shehla Rashid, who did her engineering from the National Institute of Technology, Srinagar, then embarked on a management course and worked in the private sector. But reportedly finding her job meaningless, and therefore dissatisfying, she entered JNU to take a course on Law and Governance.
So perhaps, among them all, Shehla symbolises the meaning social sciences give — and which the study of the sciences can’t. The sciences, very broadly, seeks to discover laws behind the working of our physical world. The social sciences seek to change the laws governing society, laws which are malleable and a human construct.
This is why social science students obsess with change and social justice. The sciences, too, engage with change, arguably in a more verifiable way, but the driver of this change is efficiency, of doing the same thing in quicker and fewer steps.
It is because the social sciences judge change — whether or not it is just — and their students become protesters and dissidents, raising the banner of revolt. This is what has made Kanhaiya Kumar and his comrades — who, in the process, have given value to the social sciences in a context in which studies of any kind too have been commodified, with their worth measured in terms of the money they can generate.
The author is a journalist in Delhi. His novel The Hour Before Dawn is available in bookstores