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#SeditionRow: In two open letters, JNU professors Paranjape and Datta debate Kanhaiya's 9 Feb speech

After Makarand Paranjape, professor of English at JNU, during his lecture on nationalism questioned the basis of left politics in the campus, he came under severe attack. A professor of JNU wrote an open letter questioning comments made by Paranjape on the 'recent unfortunate events in JNU'. Paranjape has written to refute the charges made against him. Firstpost produces both the letters for a dialectical debate on the JNU row.

Dear Prof. Paranjpe,

I am taking the liberty of writing this open letter to you on the JNUTA group page and on my Facebook page because of some comments you've reportedly made on the recent unfortunate events in JNU. I am referring to the report of the Hindustan Times (HT) of 19 February, 2016. I'm also pasting the link so that all of us know exactly what I'm referring to.

I apologise for not having written earlier; but I only saw this news item yesterday and decided to write to you immediately. Better late than never, isn't it?

You raise three important issues, and these constitute the crux of this open letter to you.

First, you charge the students of having organized the program of 9 February on 'false pretexts' and a 'subterfuge'; an ostensible 'poetry reading session' which was turned into 'commemoration of Afzal Guru'.

I wonder if you recall the poster which was put up as an invitation for the event. Under the banner headlines, 'A Country Without a Post Office', the poster unequivocally stated that the program was "Against the Brahmanical 'collective conscience'. 'Against the judicial killing of Afzal Guru and Maqbool Bhat!', and 'in solidarity with the struggle of the Kashmiri people for their democratic rights to self-determination'. In case you have doubts about these citations, a copy of the poster is also attached.

You are free to criticize this event and its organizers, but 'false pretexts' and 'subterfuge' are unfortunately equally false accusations. In my mind there's no ambiguity about the linguistic or semantic intent of the event organizers. Please also note the fact that the administration first gave, and then withdrew permission a few minutes before the program was to start, should also tell you that no 'false pretexts' or 'subterfuge' were involved. The administration's intentions stand exposed and are of no concern to me here; but as a colleague the least I expected from you was an honest appraisal of events.

On the question of a 'cultural event', I don't need to tell a professor of English that culture is a malleable term which lends itself to a myriad, even political, interpretations and nuances. A cultural event can quickly metamorphose into a political one depending on the kind of sentiments in a specific location.

Professor Makarand Paranjpe

Makarand Paranjape (extreme left), professor of English at JNU, with Kanhaiya Kumar at the university campus. PTI

Let me hasten to add that I am in no way commenting on or justifying what allegedly happened there. I was in Chennai on the 9th and got to know of this event upon my return. In any case, the so-called evidence of what has largely been a trial by a virulently biased media is rapidly turning out to be false and manipulated. Nevertheless, you are still welcome to your opinions. I am just pointing out some basic factual, conceptual and interpretative differences I have with your unfortunate remarks made about JNU students in a public forum.

The second issue you raise is of your disappointment, that the JNUTA, of which you are a member, passed 'no resolution condemning that misuse'. Once again I leave the choice of words to your better judgment, but 'condemning the misuse' would have amounted to prima facie accepting that (1) so-called 'anti-national' slogans were actually shouted there, and that too by our students; and (2) the steps taken by the administration without due process to let the police inside the campus was justified.

However, allow me to draw your attention to the first few lines of the JNUTA resolution of 16 February 2016. It reads as follows:

"The JNUTA GBM notes that while the University community has repeatedly reiterated that it stands by the Constitution of India and the values enshrined therein and stands opposed to those who are against the country, the malicious slander and intimidation campaign against JNU and what it stands for is being sought to be raised to an even higher pitch even as the University Administration continues to fail in its responsibility to defend JNU and its autonomy and to ensure the safety and security of the members of the University community."

Shouldn't you have at least checked with the JNUTA before maligning the Association publicly three days after the resolution had been adopted in the GBM? What did you expect teachers to do in a situation when the entire university was under attack? Did you want them to go out and do some cultural cleansing to seek retribution for the 'subterfuge' of students in order to prove their nationalism to the present political dispensation?

Have you even taken the trouble to attend even a single JNUTA GBM, now or earlier? Have you even once taken the podium to place your opinions among your colleagues for a discussion? Have you even once tried to convince your colleagues to take a harder line on the event because you think the nation wants to know? Or is it that you distrust your colleagues and place greater faith in external platforms to get some quick publicity?

Is this what makes you a public intellectual?

Now I come to the third issue raised by you. I'm struck by your ideas about how students should stick to their studies and not enter politics. The report quotes your following sage advice to them. `Have you you come to JNU to do politics or to study because in the end you will be neither here nor there'. This is really impressive, and I believe this is precisely the advice RSS has been giving in its shakhas all these years.

Depoliticize students, but be subversively political yourself. That's the new way forward, isn't it? And if you can't depoliticize, then destroy. I'm afraid that's the cultural project of this new dispensation?

Are they your mentors too, Prof. Paranjpe?

With best wishes,
Your sincerely,
Professor Rajat Datta
Centre for Historical Studies


Response from Professor Makarand Paranjape

Response to Professor Rajat Datta's "JNU Students And Free Speech: An Open Letter To Prof. Makarand Paranjape"

Dear Professor Datta,

Not being active on social media, I was taken aback to find myself the subject of a campaign of vilification following your "Open Letter" of 2 March 2016. That you had done me the honour of writing an "Open Letter" was in itself unexpected; the reactions that followed, however, dismayed and hurt me. A small portion of what I said at the Festival of Letters of the Sahitya Akademi was reported, but your reaction to it, circulated instantly in various forums, brought me notoriety in our own little village of JNU where I was quickly branded as "the internal enemy."

That your "Open Letter" was also posted on the JNU Teachers' Association (JNUTA) Facebook page was even more worrisome. By whose design or authorization did this happen? Did the Executive or GBM approve? I have written to the President and Secretary of JNUTA to find out, but have received no reply thus far. Paradoxically and regretfully, this almost proves the central thesis that I was trying to make in my talk in a panel on "Freedom of Speech" on 19 February 2016 at the SahityaAkademi: those who project themselves as the champions of democracy are quite as intolerant of dissent as those they condemn. Hence, this is not a battle between those who uphold the freedom of speech and those who seek to muzzle it, but between two opposing and politically charged factions, an "Open Letter" being one of the weapons in the arsenal to interrogate opponents, in addition to branding, boycott, bullying, and browbeating.

Your first charge in you "Open Letter" is that no "false pretexts or subterfuge were involved" in the seeking of permission for the event on 9 February 2016, during which a breakaway faction of Democratic Students Union took out a rally for a convicted and executed "terrorist," accusing the Indian state and judiciary of having committed a judicial murder, and supporting the secession of Kashmir from the Indian union. "You are free," you say, "to criticize this event and its organizers, but 'false pretexts' and 'subterfuge' are unfortunately equally false accusations." In support of your contention, you quote from the poster announcing the event: "Against the Brahmanical 'collective conscience'. 'Against the judicial killing of Afzal Guru and MaqboolBhat!', and 'in solidarity with the struggle of the Kashmiri people for their democratic rights to self-determination.'" You thus accuse me of falsehood and distortion.

But surely, Sir, you have made a fundamental error in confusing or conflating two different documents in your line of argument, which I did not expect of you as a historian. I nowhere referred to the poster in my remarks; I was speaking of the reported requisition seeking permission from the office of the Dean of Students, wherein the event was billed merely as a poetry reading, with an expected audience of seven.

The "false pretexts" and "subterfuge" were in this requisition, not in the posters that followed. Indeed, if you had cared to detail the exact sequence of events, which again might be expected of you as a historian, it was when the said poster appeared that the administration possibly got wind of the real intent of the organisers and withdrew permission. But flouting the withdrawal, the organisers went ahead, which led to protests by another group of students leading to the unfortunate subsequent events. Without understanding my line of argument, you misrepresented, worse, accused me of lack of honesty. But as you are my respected colleague, I shall refrain from casting aspersions on your motives.

Protesting students of JNU. Image courtesy: Tarique Anwar/Firstpost

Protesting students of JNU. Image courtesy: Tarique Anwar/Firstpost

Your second accusation is that I "maligned" the JNUTA three days after it passed a resolution that it "stands by the Constitution of India." You accuse me of distrusting my colleagues and garnering some quick publicity from external platforms. Allow me to disabuse you on both counts.

The latter first for as a historian, you will admit that context is sometimes as important as the text. I was, as I mentioned earlier, already an invited speaker at the SahityaAkademi's Annual Festival of Letters. My talk was on "India's Intolerance Wars."

I had no intention of referring to JNUhad not the fateful events following 9th February 2016 engulfed us. Itwas widely expected of me to comment on the JNU imbroglio, since it had been in the news continuously from then to the day of my talk on the 19 February 2016. No wonder, after I spoke, I was literally mobbed; so many said that I had shown remarkable courage in speaking up; not one of them accused me of bad faith or seeking publicity.

Unfortunately, the only part of my talk that was reported was pertaining to JNU; everything else was ignored. I had called for a way to reconcile the antinomies of our times; that would be the work of sahitya or literature in our times. None of this let alone the rest of my talkwas reported; indeed, on my part, I had no idea that the Press was even present there.

Let me now address the first part of your second accusation. The JNUTA resolution that you cite does not specifically condemn the Afzal Guru event. My objection was that the JNUTA approach was one-sided. In the correspondence that followed between various faculty members, some had made a demand for such an explicit condemnation, but their demand had not been acceded to by JNUTA. Instead, some of these dissenting faculty members had been vilified.

These unseemly attacks had distressed me, but I did not allude to them in my talk. I only said that the false pretexts under which the 9 February event had been held had not been condemned by my association. You may or may not know this but I had explicitly written the JNUTA President about this on that very day, 19 February 2016. I requested some points in my letter be tabled in the GBM, which did not happen. I append my letter below, as it is:

The President, JNUTA

Finally, to your third issue about "depoliticisation" of students.The issue, to my mind, is not of depoliticisation, which seems so remote a possibility in JNU, but ofthe quality and content of this politics that we so vaunt to ourselves and to the world. Are we never to do some honest soul-searching and self-interrogation about how seldom it amounts to anything more than repetitive, intellectually deficient shibboleths, anti-state, anti-establishment, anti-majority, anti-this-or-that sloganeering, peppered with factual inaccuracies, distortions, and hate-speech? Of course, in my talk I only said that politics at the expense of studies would harm the long-term interests of most students, except the "cadres," who would be patronized and taken care of.

Isn't a call to reorient our students toward academics therefore necessary to re-intellectualise and safeguard our academic ecosystem?You claim that "this is precisely the advice RSS has been giving in its shakhas all these years."

Since I don't attend RSS shakhas I wouldn't know; but perhaps you do, since you speak with such authority about what is said there "all these years." Don't worry: even if you do frequent RSS shakhas, I for one, shall not start treating you as an "untouchable." I believe that talking and listening to all sections of our ideologically and socially diverse country is one of the demands of our times, especially if we wish not to escalate the uncivil strife that engulfs us.Ironically, this morning's papers quote the recently released JNUSU President condemning outright the 9 February 2016 event: now that he has reversed his stand so diametrically and drastically, what will you say of his intentions and integrity?

Frankly speaking, Sir, I have doubts about the utility of ourexchange, which has already been too time and energy-guzzling for one who still wishes to read, write, think - and, yes, teach our wonderfully curious and inspiring students. I am sure that it is the latter who constitute one important reason that makes JNU so worthwhile for each of us who are its faculty members.

Yours sincerely,
Makarand R. Paranjape
Professor of English, JNU

Updated Date: Mar 10, 2016 17:14 PM

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