By N R Mohanty
The ‘Nationalism Class’ that has been going on in JNU campus since some students — including the president of JNUSU — were arrested on sedition charges last month has been a big draw. The leading left-leaning intellectuals of the country have been addressing the students every afternoon. These lectures have found a much larger audience because they have been uploaded on the YouTube and the links are everywhere on the social media. Leading newspapers of the national capital have been covering the speeches in their columns regularly.
On 8 March (Tuesday) morning, however, the newspaper headlines about the Nationalism Class in JNU made for a strange reading. The Times of India’s headline said: “Did You Check Facts: Prof to JNUSU Prez”. The headline in the Indian Express was more specific: “Is JNU a Democratic or Left Hegemonic Space: Prof Paranjape”. The Hindu, which had religiously covered all Nationalism Lectures at JNU so far, surprisingly, did not mention this lecture at all in its columns (or was it not very ‘surprising’ given The Hindu’s ideological stance?).
I said that the headlines made for a strange reading because hitherto all the speakers — eminent academics and activists — had spoken what the audience wanted to hear; while critiquing the Sangh Parivar, they had presented an unconditional defence of the Left. At least no one’s analytical frame of Nationalism in India had a word critical of the Left movement. Prof Makarand Paranjape, professor of English at JNU, who delivered the 15th Nationalism Lecture, clearly struck a discordant note when he referred to the diabolical practices of the communist regimes of the Soviet Union and China and the Communist party of India’s flip-flop during the nationalist freedom struggle in India. Prof Paranjape did not spare even the Left in JNU.
Referring to the JNU campus of which he is a part for the last 16 years, he asked: “When we consider ourselves to be a democratic space, we should ask ourselves if this is entirely true. Isn’t it that it is a Left hegemonic space where if you disagree you are silenced, you are boycotted, you are browbeaten or, sometimes you are brainwashed.”
Well, it was a very sweeping statement. And, to me, an incorrect one. Students of JNU are a band of intelligent boys and girls and it is difficult to accept that any hegemonic apparatus in JNU can coerce them to fall in prescribed line. If the Left student groups are winning the students’ union elections in JNU frequently, it is because these groups have an ideological and organisational appeal that is better than the alternatives on offer. When any non-Left (I mean, traditional Left) leader has presented an alternative vision that has appealed to students, students of JNU have voted for them. That is why JNUSU presidents have been elected on diverse non-communist platforms: Free Thinkers, Students for Democratic Socialism, even NSUI and ABVP. If JNU was a Left hegemonic space, then how was an ABVP candidate elected for the top post of the students’ union a few years ago?
Even take the case of Kanhaiya Kumar. He belongs to the AISF. In the traditional Left space, AISF had never won the post of the President of the JNUSU. AISF has traditionally been a junior partner of SFI in the JNU campus; SFI in JNU is the larger left group which has thrown up leaders like Prakash Karat, D P Tripathi and Sitaram Yechury. In the last several years, a radical left group, AISA, has upstaged the dominance of the SFI. But this year, Kanhaiya Kumar was able to push both SFI and AISA to the sidelines because of his oratorical skills as well as his personality traits. Next year, if the ABVP can present a leader who can spit fire on a public platform and make powerful arguments in informal conversations, it will not be a surprise if he or she wins the JNU students’ mandate. But this victory will not happen because of Narendra Modi or the Sangh Parivar or a vice chancellor nominated by them, it will happen because students of JNU have the innate ability to discriminate between the good and the better and they would elect someone who has the best potential to represent them.
So I disagree with Prof Paranjape when he talks about the stifling democratic space in JNU. Prof Paranjape pointed out a factual mistake in Kanhaiya Kumar’s post-jail address to the nation: “You said M S Golwalker met Mussolini; but did you check facts? It was B S Moonje who met Mussolini.” I would say it was a small detail and anyway, this mistake made by Kanhaiya did not change the crux of his basic argument – that the Sangh was influenced by the Nazi forces.
I can also point out a small factual mistake that Prof Paranjape made in his speech – that Jairus Banaji, a Trotskeyite, had exposed the totalitarianism of the Stalinist Left and had challenged Prakash Karat when he was the president of the JNUSU which resulted in Karat getting defeated the next year by Anand Kumar. The fact is that Jairus Banaji came to JNU when both Prakash Karat and Anand Kumar had left the campus. It was left to D P Tripathi and Sitaram Yechury to face the ideological fury of Banaji.
Nevertheless Prof Paranjape made certain seminal points that need to be debated, not pushed under the carpet. Totalitarianism of the Stalinist Russia and Maoist China — which sacrificed millions of lives to build an egalitarian social and economic order that never came — is an established fact corroborated by their respective political successors in their own country. Fascist leaders also sold a dream and sent millions to the gas chambers. In that respect, communism and fascism were akin in practice, if not in theory.
It is also important to remember that at some point of history of India, communists and RSS were on the same side — on the side of the British imperialism and against Mahatma Gandhi-led India’s freedom struggle. So communists and Sanghis taking pride in their ‘Nationalist’ credentials has a indeed a touch of irony!
When intellectuals are taking classes on ‘Nationalism’ and they steer clear of such self-evident issues, it is because they wrap themselves in an ideological cocoon from which the world seems garbed in absolute categories — Sangh Vs Left, Them Vs Us. There are many intellectuals who are acutely aware of the inadequacies and inconsistencies of the Indian Communist movement, but they keep their misgivings private because they want to be politically correct before a left-leaning audience. Prof Paranjape deserves the credit for expanding the contours of the Nationalism Debate in JNU.