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JNU is like a land of lotus-eaters, where we haven't emerged from the Cold War: Makarand Paranjape

In the on-going series of teach-in lectures on nationalism at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, Makarand Paranjape, professor at the Centre of English Studies (CES) emerged as an alternative voice on the JNU row when he asked if the institution was a 'democratic space' or a 'Left hegemonic space', and why Leftists had trouble accepting the 'legitimacy of the Indian State'. Speaking to Firstpost, he reflected on the challenges that JNU faces today and why he is critical of Left politics on campus.

You have spoken about 'manufactured discontent'. Who is manufacturing this discontent?

One shouldn’t pinpoint anyone without concrete evidence. That’s why I don't want to think it as a “conspiracy", but it does seems the case that there are sections of our own intelligentsia and academia whom you may call "brokers of backwardness". These people seem to benefit from creating bipolar opposites and divisions in society, then positioning themselves as the vanguard or forefront of such oppositional politics. Surely some are beneficiaries of this strategy. You can hold a system to ransom, then claim your rewards for backing down. In the management school case studies, there are documented cases, I am told, of people with nuisance value getting more from an organisation than those who cooperate or are submissive.

Even in school, you see the bully gets her way till she is beaten back by someone else. So by threatening to leave or break up something, people do extract benefits. Even in family, spoilers who threaten to break the family will draw many efforts from elders to appease their demands, even if these are found to be unjust. So this could be both human psychology or a well thought-out strategy to extract as much as possible from a system by constantly creating disaffection. Of course, this does not mean that some people — some sections of society — do not have genuine grievances. But they often participate in a process to have these demands met, then give up their agitation. But the groups we are speaking of will never be satisfied. Why? But they want an intolerable situation, one in which the pot is always kept on the boil, so to speak.

File image of Makarand Paranjpe (right). PTI

File image of Professor Makarand Paranjape (right) with Kanhaiya Kumar (centre). PTI

In your lecture, you said that you want to explore the space between ultra-nationalist and revolutionaries? Do you feel that space being eroded over the years on campus?

Absolutely, I feel it is shrinking in JNU and elsewhere as well. But I called them “so-called" revolutionaries. Without casting any aspersions on them and with due respect to their ideologies, I feel that their revolutionary credentials are questionable. They hardly speak about how they plan to bring about this revolution. As to the ultra-Left, they openly advocate armed rebellion and overthrow of the State, which is why they are outlawed. I don't suppose that any legitimate government will tolerate that, which is why they are outlawed. But the establishment Left, which is what mainstream JNU politics represents, on the one hand, swears by the Constitution of India. On the other hand, they talk of revolution. If so, will they bring revolution through the ballot? If so, how are they substantively different from the other parties in the electoral fray?

Like other political actors, they they have to enter the Indian political mainstream, stand for elections, and within the Assembly and within Parliament, they have to create new laws to bring the change they wan. But that is not quite revolutionary in the traditional Marxist sense; it is a democratic and incremental way of bringing about change. But our JNUSU president is fond of making flamboyant and dramatic gestures: Azadi, kranti and so on are often on his lips. He never says how he proposes to accomplish them. In actuality, even some offshoots of the CPI(ML), like the one represented by Kavita Krishnan, have joined the electoral process and have completely entered the mainstream of Indian politics. That’s why I call them “so-called” revolutionaries; they may offer the “Lal Salaams” chant, “Inquilab Zindabad” slogans, but this is performative without much substance.

You talk of middle ground and consensus, which according to a section of students, seems to be missing here in JNU. As a student remarked here, you are Left-way or no-way.

I agree that is not always possible to achieve consensus, but it is definitely possible, even desirable, to have dialogue and discussion. What has distressed me is that in many of our campuses the kind of discourse that dominates completely lacks dialogue or critical introspection. It is all about ever attacking and abusing your opponents, what you may call akramak rawaiya in Hindi. There is hardly any rational dialogue and discourse. Consensus is a far cry; let’s at least start with civil dialogue and discourse. We all belong to the same campus, the same society, and the same country; after all, we are not each others' enemies. So let’s have that minimum courtesy that stems from what you may call a hermeneutics of generosity, not of hostility.

You remarked that no ideology is complete and you stressed upon acceptance of difficulties and absences and incompletenesses. Do you think the Left in JNU seems to have wilful ignorance of the problems in their ideology?

It is a very important question. Whether it is willful or not, it seems to have its share of inadequacies and incompletenesses. I cannot ascribe motives to people but, but it does appear as if they are not interested in admitting that their position is in any way lacking. Instead, they deploy emotional appeal, distortion of facts, and mind-numbing sloganeering. We should be responsible, should debate on the merit of a particular issue. But instead, there seems to be a great deal of ignorance, and not enough research. What worries me is that these people are not even interested in discussion or debate, only in enforcing their points of view and ideologies. Walk around the campus; you will find that many of the slogans are struck in the Cold War era. They have not got out of it. This is like a land of lotus-eaters, where we are in time warp. It is like living in a bubble. The slogans are lacking in intellectual content. They seemed to be trapped in the mindset that has been long abandoned in the rest of the world in the evolutionary process of the history.

But JNU seems to be struck in some other world altogether.

You criticised part of Kanhaiya’ speech on some very rational grounds like when you said “Hum unko batayenge... humko kuchh sunna nahi hai kya?.. humne kya sab samajh liya hai” Does this reflect a bigger problem than youthful arrogance?

Let make it clear that I have nothing against Kanhiaya personally. It was reported in the press as if I was correcting Kanhaiya. I have no intention to do so. I am nobody to correct anyone. But yes, I feel that it is my duty to raise questions. When you are part of a university, it is incumbent upon you to check your facts and make your case in such a manner that it is held up against scrutiny. There is no point making wild allegations. Yes, there are times when I felt that some of the speechifying showed tremendous arrogance. Statements like eet se eet baja denge, unko nahi pata woh kis se takkar le rahe hai were not required at all.

This sort of inflammatory rhetoric that emanates from JNU might be entertaining to some, but will prove counter-productive because it is the same government from which they are constantly looking for handouts. They are asking for a raise in scholarships and other benefits, while fees have been static for so long. On the one hand, you are taking from a particular system and on the other hand, you are abusing the same system. This is a strange kind of polemic where there is no acknowledgment of what the system is giving, there is no appreciation, only endless abuse. It baffles me completely.

You said that discourse which goes out from here is very ‘anti’ this or that and does not look positive, which many people feel but to which hardly any JNU faculty admits.

I meant the political and polemical sloganeering and shouting. Somehow the politically-oriented on campus consider themselves as something like self-appointed watchdogs of the nation. Many people outside are also concerned about what is happening in India. It is not the JNU student leaders alone that are holding the flag of critique. I find the political culture in JNU extremely, sometimes needlessly, anti-establishment and anti-State. Are we living under a state of occupation or imperialism? Is this a war zone in which we are under attack? This is our own State, our own campus, and we are free to open channels of communication to improve a system. Instead, the revolutionary rhetoric suggests as if we are the last hope for democracy against an encroaching Fascist state. I think this position is clearly untenable.

You said that there is a need for deep introspection about who is democratic and who is not. Do you feel that this whole debate of intolerance and the current government being undemocratic is too far-fetched?

I thought that there was something really unfair and malafide about some of these campaigns. Many writers were marshaled to join in these protests and you will see that after the Bihar elections, everything died out. It is precisely the instrumental use of civil society for power politics, vote bank politics, which really distresses me.

You asked, why is it difficult for the Left to accept the legitimacy of elected government in India and where do people who say that they will overthrow the elected government derive their legitimacy from. I want to know, according to you, where do they derive this legitimacy?

That is the point. You can question the polices and even the actions of the elected government, but to question its legitimacy implies that you do not believe in the democracy. It implies that you only believe in that form of government or ideology that meets with your approval. Now that is not how the democratic process works. But this is the peculiar problem with the Left, going back to its DNA, so to speak. The Left seizes power, then turns totalitarian. This has been the case in many countries. Or it becomes a dictatorship centred around one figure. In China, I am told, you cannot unionise workers, cannot take out rally against wrong policies of the company hiring you if you are a labourer or worker. Does this signify workers rights? Of course, I am not suggesting authoritarian traits do not run in other ideologies too. But, when it comes to India, we should celebrate despite all our drawbacks; we are possibly the most vibrant democracy in the world.

You remarked during your lecture about debating how many people support separatism in Kashmir. Do you feel a majority of students would favour this or are even concerned about this?

No, I don't think Kashmiri separatism has widespread appeal or base on the JNU campus. They get half-hearted support from some of the Left. The fact is that those who make 'minor-atarian' claims will be judged by how they treat their own minorities. How did the Muslim majority in the Valley treat their own minority of Kashmiri Pandits? But I did not see protest rallies by JANUTA or JNUSU against their dislocation and human right violations.

The burning of Manusmriti is a symbolic act. But don’t you think attacking age-old symbols of oppression only confirms a view that JNU is trapped in a time warp?

Manusmriti is a much-maligned text. which is easier to burn than read. There are many texts which have comparable or even worse views on social hierarchy or the ill-treatment of women. Of course you cannot burn them, because their adherents will really strike back. So Manusmriti is very safe, even a comfortable text to burn as it is not really sacred to anyone. But, as I said, burning is easy, but reading, especially reading with critical understanding, textual rigour, and methodological responsibility is much, much harder.

Because if you read the Manavadharmashastra in this fashion, you would also find many worthwhile things in it, including statements supporting the equality, respect, protection, and satisfaction of women. But, then, your whole case would collapse; the text would be cease to “wholly evil”. Much easier simply to brand it and burn it, than really to read it carefully or engage with it or critique it. No one is supporting the social order that it propounds; likewise, some great Greek philosophers were themselves slave owners as were the founders of the American republic, including Thomas Jefferson who famously said, “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal.” Many holy books also endorse slavery, including the taking of women and children of defeated enemies as chattel. Do we burn these books?

Sloganeering and politicking are easy; producing good academic work much harder. Similar, a beef festival is relatively easy to organise in India, but try to organise a pork festival let alone in a a Muslim-majority country, but even right here, whether in Srinigar, Hyderabad, Kolkata, or even JNU. So you see much of this “progressive” rabble-rousing is meant to attack, offend, even divide one section of society, even one religious community, while looking the other way at the faults of others. Remember how the Left Front government in West Bengal drove out Taslima Nasrin at the behest of the Mullahs? Where was their “secularism" then? Come on, isn’t a selective and partial advocacy of for or against a particular religious community how communalism is defined in the first place?

Updated Date: Mar 10, 2016 12:57 PM

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