Bombay HC-Vernon Gonsalves row's only merit is in offering a way to redress anti-intellectualism of our times

  • No knowledge should be subjugated, and yet, some knowledges always have been.

  • The anti-intellectualism of our times is well-known and well-documented, but a way to redress it has been found wanting.

  • If there is a merit to the fracas about Vernon Gonsalves’s material, it is in its offering of one such way.

With each passing day of the 2018 Bhima Koregaon case, politics has started appearing as a theatre of the absurd. Earlier this week, and only very recently, the second day of the bail hearing for activist Vernon Gonsalves threw into titular view certain evidence that Justice SV Kotwal’s court at the Bombay High Court reportedly found incriminating and suggestive of Gonsalves’s affiliations to ‘a banned organisation.’

For any casual observer of political history as it happens — but especially so for a well-meaning citizen drawn towards and committed to democratic values — the string of events prefiguring and figuring the legal case constructed around incidents of violence at Bhima Koregaon in 2018 paints a worrying picture.

Despite verifiable reports of Maratha attacks on the predominantly Dalit gathering assembled at Bhima Koregaon, all violence at the scene of its event was located in one community and over the many months since the inception of the legal case, considerable investigative effort has been exerted to pluck out, as it were, its vaguely related votaries. There is a curious sense of alarm in the rapidity with which connections have been made — between the violence at Bhima Koregaon and the individuals who have been detained, arrested, and tried, as well as between the event, the Maoists and as follows, their ‘urban’ henchmen.

 Bombay HC-Vernon Gonsalves rows only merit is in offering a way to redress anti-intellectualism of our times

Vernon Gonsalves (centre) with his wife Susan and son Sagar before being taken away by the cops, on 29 August 2018. Image via Facebook/@sagar.abrahamgonsalves

It would be significant to consider this aforementioned incriminating evidence, if only it were all not so tragically absurd — Gonsalves’s problematic digital and print records comprise, among other things, Anand Patwardhan’s documentary Jai Bhim Comrade, the Kabir Kala Manch’s Rajya Daman Vidrohi, and a collection of essays titled War and Peace in Junglemahal: People, State and Maoists, edited by Biswajit Roy. Few have bothered to ask why and how complicit participation is understood to necessarily follow from the mere possession of material that the records of any teacher or student of the liberal arts can rival. The besieged position of all avenues of liberal education is perhaps then no surprise. In addition to being interrogated for its putatively scurrilous content, Gonsalves has also been asked to ‘explain’ his possession of the material.

The first time I came to possess material of the genre — an incriminating copy of The Annihilation of Caste (1936) by BR Ambedkar — was in the first or second year of my undergraduate education in history. I came to the text from an earnest desire to know more about a figure I only knew as a constitutionalist; I left very impressed. I appreciated Ambedkar for the unsparing rigour of his method and his profound socio-political concern for the vulnerable and the marginalised. It is a text that did not make me a card-carrying member of any organisation, but it is a text that educated me about and beyond the wretched comfort of my ensconced world. As I tried to argue in this piece, it is this far-reaching vision of development and justice that the figures of the case foreground; there is little else that Sudha Bharadwaj’s immensely significant work with adivasi groups in Chattisgarh suggests. It should be well-known that this is a vision most postcolonial governments have, perhaps programmatically, misunderstood.

Vernon Gonsalves has previously been tried, in 2007, under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act — a law whose limits have been sketched in this piece. The associations of Bharadwaj and Gonsalves with groups dubbed ‘Maoists,’ the specious baggage of that term notwithstanding, are much less clearer than they appear to be. In War and Peace in Junglemahal — one of the books found in Gonsalves' possession — there are, in fact, many sections devoted to trenchant criticisms of the Maoists. The book attempts to recover voices from Junglemahal and in doing so, makes a sincere case for peace in the region. It is difficult to strait-jacket Gonsalves’s literature, and because we inhabit a circumstance starving for alternative conceptions, expurgating it leaves us poorer.

No knowledge should be subjugated, and yet, some knowledges always have been. The anti-intellectualism of our times is well-known and well-documented, but a way to redress it has been found wanting. If there is a merit to the fracas about Vernon Gonsalves’s material, it is in its offering of one such way. Perhaps it is time, now more than ever, that all protective articulations for the intellectual take as their nucleus the immediacy of protecting knowledge, however disagreeable. In doing so, we do justice to the tragicomedy of what has unfolded around Gonsalves’ incriminatory evidence — because we know what is at stake when we laugh.

Updated Date: Sep 02, 2019 09:53:48 IST